Amy Winehouse: The leader of the pack
Without Amy Winehouse there would have been no Adele, no Duffy, no Lady Gaga – she shaped the current music scene even as she withdrew from it. Harriet Walker charts the legacy of an old-school star
Tuesday 26 July 2011
The year 2003 was a veritable musical wasteland. The Hit Parade was a blasted heath, the Top 40 a battlefield strewn with casualties of the clashes between labels and artists, between reality and the supposedly alternative wave, between new stars coming to the end of their 15 minutes and golden oldies endlessly resetting the clock on theirs.
Girls Aloud (Popstars: The Rivals), David Sneddon (Fame Academy), Gareth Gates (Pop Idol), Will Young (ditto). Tatu (two Russian fake-lesbian fake-schoolgirls who kissed every time it rained), Busted (three schoolboys with guitars and a tween fanbase), Evanescence ("goth Christian nu-metal with a twist of melancholic Enya," according to Blender), The Darkness (who came from a glam-schlock, hyper-masculinist novelty school of "Cock Rock").
Elton John had spent several weeks at No 1 over the summer bellowing "Are you ready for lurrrve?" ad infinitum. To tell the truth, we were ready for anything, so long as it wasn't a remix and had its own hair.
What we got was Amy Winehouse. Her debut album, Frank, was released that October, which happened to be the month I arrived at university. Long after the disco beat of freshers' week had receded, Winehouse's heartfelt lyrics about love, lust and ladyboys still resonated, both literally and metaphorically, down the corridors of our halls of residence. Amy Winehouse knocked Kylie Minogue and Sugababes, both of whom were riding high in the charts at the time, into a cocked hat. And she blazed a trail for others like her.
The music landscape that Winehouse joined in 2003 was very different to the one she left behind last Saturday. Bands have come and gone, groups split, re-formed and split again, some names may have endured but shelf life has shortened. That hollow list above, which cited women in pop only as by-products of audience-participation game shows or as faux-erogenous, gothic ciphers, feels as dated as their songs now sound. The charts are full of women; there are paeans written in their honour; there are actual articles in serious music magazines about girls; they are all over MTV – and some of them even have their clothes on.
This is Amy Winehouse's legacy: thanks to her, female artists became credible and they became vocal. And they control their destinies in a way she never managed.
"There was a big industry noise made about Amy very early on in her career, a long time before Frank came out," says celebrity writer Paul Flynn. "She was mismarketed terribly, lumped in with that Radio 2-endorsed trad jazz revival thing that was going on, which couldn't really have been further from who she was."
But Winehouse was the first to understand what the new direction for women in music could be, the first to combine the slickness of a commercial venture (she was, after all, stage-schooled and signed to Simon Fuller's 19 management label, the same as the Spice Girls) with likeability and realism, unlike so many pre-teen popstrels with sponsorship deals.
Although the genre-ticks and stylings of Winehouse's early work bore hallmarks of the jazz and soul she had grown up listening to, they also worked with rhythm and beat in a modern-sounding, if retro, way. "Amy looked further back, to the heartbroken hit factory of Detroit's Motown girl groups," says Hanna Hanra, editor of music magazine The Beat. "To the Rat Pack's long, croony notes and heavy drinking. And truth be told, there just weren't many independent women around. Not only did Amy introduce a whole new sound, she also introduced a whole new attitude. She didn't give a f*** at a time when the majority of female acts were groomed by the pop industry. In 2004's top 20 singles, there are only four songs by women – Beyoncé, Destiny's Child and the other two are by Kelis."
When the second album Back To Black came out in 2006, I had just graduated and moved to London. Once again, Amy Winehouse was there to catalogue the rites of passage, the highs and lows – and this time, the world loved her for being so heartsore and gobby – the album won five Grammys that year; Beyoncé is the only other female artist to have won more in one night.
And on her heels came the likes of Adele and Florence Welch, even pop stars Katy Perry and Lady Gaga. Individual but iconic, emotive but empathetic, sympathetic but such obvious star quality: they channel the raw but reworked power of latterday divas made modern for current tastes. Earlier queens of the scene, such as Janis Joplin and Patti Smith, had gained ascendance either by imitating the ways of their male counterparts or subduing their own femininity. While Winehouse was undoubtedly a bit lairy, she was by no means a ladette; she started out just as boozy and bitchy as the rest of us, and her petite, curvy frame was all part of her look.
Not since Neneh Cherry had appeared pregnant, medallioned and encased in a gold bra on Top of the Pops telling people not to get fresh with her had there been a female star with such verve, pizzazz, strength and charisma. Madonna was Madonna, of course, but Amy Winehouse was ours. She was from a new generation and she was doing it differently – she was a lyricist, a poet, perhaps, given the metaphysical conceits present in most of her songs, and she was the sort of performer who was born to sing rather than bay for fame. Her sexuality wasn't a weapon, as it had been for many of her predecessors; she was just another young woman trying to figure out how not to get dumped again, and taking pot shots at footballers' wives in the meantime.
If listening to Madonna albums had been the equivalent of starring in your very own burlesque show, then listening to Winehouse was like going to the pub with a friend, listening to her romantic woes, having her advise you on yours, and then the two of you laughing and pointing at some try-hards by the bar. It was the perfect stance, a stylish version of solidarity, for young female consumers and music fans.
"She had that incredible artistic gift of being complicated yet clear," says Paul Flynn. "Her wordplay, the phrasing in her singing, the emotional depth she put into the work. There's a certain remove and distance in a lot of 21st-century pop music that she dispensed with. Her singing was the diametric opposite of autotune. She hurt openly."
Winehouse was upfront; she pulled no punches. She may have been 19 when she first surfaced – a year older than me – but her world-weary wisecracks were those of someone who had already lived it all. She was streetwise, cocksure and rude – so rude in fact that it took me years to catch up with the actual meanings of what I was singing along to.
Even Beyoncé Knowles, who had had several No 1s even before Amy Winehouse came to the fore, is now playing from the same songbook, developing the sassy, pop-infused schmaltz of "Crazy in Love" (which hit the top spot three months before the release of Frank) into less naive dating diatribes such as "Why Don't You Love Me?" and "Irreplaceable".
"Not only was Amy's voice impeccable, her songwriting skills were incredible," continues Hanna Hanra. "She made it OK to be a talented women in the music industry. She spawned a million imitations – think Duffy – but then think of all the actual talented, amazing people like Florence Welch. Adele has sold something like two albums a minute this year. Do you think that without Winehouse she would have been signed, and given a second album deal?"
Adele herself said yesterday: "Amy paved the way for artists like me and made people excited about british music again whilst being fearlessly hilarious and blase about the whole thing."
I saw Winehouse live in 2004, and was surprised by the demographic she pulled in. A mix of jazzophiles, hipsters, girly girls, femme fatales and housewives – each group had been looking for something like her; the Venn diagram of her appeal was an endless series of bubbles.
"There were a lot of very obvious records fashioned directly in the wake of Back To Black," adds Paul Flynn, "both Duffy albums, big generational hits for Pixie Lott and Girls Aloud, Paloma Faith. But it seemed to be only Adele that understood the genius of Amy was not in the styling of her songs but the meaning of them. Adele channelled that inarguable purity."
The trouble with that purity was that it was absolute; Winehouse's music was as heart-wrenchingly open and painful as her private life. "Amy was brutally honest with those moments in her twenties that so many women have," adds Hanra, "when they loose faith in authority, men, themselves."
It was by way of this trope that Amy Winehouse handed women back the credibility they lacked in mainstream music. Female artists penning their own songs, detailing their own experiences, bad or good – it's the central motif and linchpin for the success of even the likes of Lady Gaga.
Amy Winehouse shaped the current music scene even as she absented herself from it. She sang for herself but an entire generation listened. And the resurgence of both albums since her untimely death is proof that her music will see out the years that she did not.
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