I'm late to the party for Amy Winehouse, but that doesn't really matter -- she's still sloshed and adorably so. I dismissed her entirely and unfairly as the buzz started mounting for her sophomore disc, Back to Black. I thought her 2003 debut, Frank, was corny (in retrospect, I was probably wrong). I figured this new wave of mass gushing made her the next great white Brit hype, a phenomenon that's easy enough to avoid once you get the hang of it. I'm sure at some point I also became aware of Perez Hilton's endorsement of her, which is sort of the Photoshopped semen on any artist's career, given his method of relating his taste ("We are such a lesbian!!!"). It wasn't until someone whose opinion I find infallible told me to listen to Winehouse that I actually gave her a chance. I'm so happy that I cut the seventh-grade bullshit and finally dug into Back to Black. I'd been missing out on the rare album-wide intersection of R&B and wit. I fell in love the first time I listened to Black, and almost immediately became depressed. Can Winehouse ever live up to track after track that twists hazy oldies nostalgia with the MySpace-generation's enthusiasm for exhibitionism? More selfishly, in a digital world where listening to music is to be bombarded with it, when is the next time I'll hear an album I love so completely that I want to keep returning to it?
I want to hug Amy Winehouse. Modern soul singers are expected to make their effort your business with melisma you can feel (whether it's nails on a chalkboard or aural fireworks to your senses). Winehouse, however, just is and, what's more, she just is amazing. Wednesday's Washington Post piece on her runs through four comparisons to the diva canon (Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Dusty Springfield and Nina Simone); Ella Fitzgerald and especially Billie Holiday are common reference points, too (a few have even noted that Winehouse dips into a golden-throated Lauryn Hill throwback from time to time). She invokes so many beloved voices at once, but I wonder if this means she's supremely derivative (not that I ever take points off for that) or just plain classic in her own right. I'm smitten, so I'm thinking it's the latter case.
Yes, she can sing, but that's just part of her appeal. Her lyrics flesh her out as something of a poor little rich girl; the woman who uses her perfect voice to relate an extremely flawed existence. Black's mush-loved first single "Rehab," cheekily dismisses most of the 12 steps ("They tried to make me go to rehab/I said, no, no, no") until it hits a harrowing bottom ("I'm gonna, I'm gonna lose my baby/So I always keep a bottle near"). It continues to chime and skip on like a Spector-production, and sounds morbid for carrying on. Chemical dependency is central to her work -- "It's got me addicted, does more than any dick did," she says of weed in the charming closing track, "Addicted." But that's not for dick's lack of trying (or her lack of trying it on). Black is filled with tales of cheating -- it's mostly all about the same affair, but Winehouse gives clues to a dependency on infidelity itself. "Even if I stop wanting you, and perspective pushes through/I'll be some next man's other woman soon," she says in "Tears Dry on Their Own," a song I've listened to enough times in the past week to suggest that I, too, have a dependency. The lyrics would sound like wallowing if the track weren't so bouncy, and likewise, Winehouse would sound intangible with that gorgeous voice if she didn't paint the picture of someone so fucked up. It's endearing then, when she follows the above-quoted lines with, "I shouldn't play myself again/I should just be my own best friend/Not fuck myself in the head with stupid men." How often do you come across someone who's so ready to admit that she's wrong, let alone a pop star who does so?
Winehouse's messiness spills out of her recorded persona and into her personal appearances. This makes her everything I could ever want in a celebrity. I can't get enough of the cocktail of talent and brilliance and functionality and craziness that she regularly serves. Even something like her shitfaced cover of Michael Jackson's "Beat It" with Charlotte Church goes back easy because you know that tomorrow she'll probably have it more together. Or maybe not, and, anyway unpredictability makes gawking exciting. Her persona most reminds me of Whitney Houston circa Being Bobby Brown (pre-Christmas special), except she's less shifty: on her dramatic between-album weight loss, Winehouse said she suffered from, "a little bit of anorexia, a little bit of bulimia. I'm not totally OK now but I don't think any woman is."
Admitting you have a problem is the first step, but Winehouse perhaps is a mess that she'd be foolish to clean up. Everything about her -- her lyrics, her uncouth public displays (like this vomit shocker), her strung-out appearance (dig the rat's nest) -- falls brilliantly into place. Her ticking time-bomb nature only strengthens her capacity for endearment -- there's barely a jump between buying into her persona and rooting for her. In that Washington Post piece linked to above, she "requests an amaretto sour -- to hoots of approval. It's a part of her shtick, what her fans have come to expect." It's important to keep in mind that even when honest, shtick is still shtick. Winehouse packages and sells herself remarkably well for someone so artistic.
In response to the Post article, Idolator fretted over the state of (and cause for) Winehouse's celebrity: "If being able to get into Perez Hilton's shitshow for throwing up and unleashing drunken rants is the benchmark for her 'star potential,' then she--and the apparatus that's trying to break her in the States--is screwed...it's hard not to worry that her persona will overshadow all [the] marketing initiatives---and that she'll become nothing more than the next Britney Spears, without even a '...Baby One More Time' under her belt." It's a fair concern for someone as gifted as Winehouse, but that's a risk taken as soon as the camera starts clicking for the album-cover photo shoot of anyone. We're talking about pop-stardom here -- the music's only part of the message, and Winehouse is a woman of many talents. If not part of her artistry, her tabloid messiness at least informs and complements it. This kind of honesty, integrity and seeming willingness to live what one sings about is so rare in pop music that whatever the eventual consequences, I can't help but be awed by it now. Amy Winehouse is either the most honest pop star I've ever taken a liking to, or she's a tremendous actress decked out in a perfectly tailored image. Either way, I don't want to take my eyes off of her.