It was the radio that broke the news to me that Amy Winehouse had died. I’m glad it was that instead of a trashy gossip website or a tabloid because unlike those, the radio was good to Amy — her songs sounded fantastic coming out of one, and enjoying her music like that doesn’t require you to judge her or think about her work on anything other than its own merits. The presenter didn’t say “Oh well, we could see that coming,” but it was given without a hint of surprise; her fall had been accepted by so many as an inevitability that lingering questions weren’t just subtext when discussing Amy, they became loud interference, bleeding into her art and life. As with many talented people, especially talented women, her accomplishments became secondary to reportage over the drama in her life; these overtook the exquisite drama in her songs as the focal point of discussion.
She leaves behind a relatively small discography, but an influential one in terms of the success of female singer-songwriters in the last few years. She leaves behind records good enough to be loved for what they are quite apart from this fact, and enough that she could never be remembered the way she came to be caricatured. We regret her passing not just because it’s not what we wanted, but because unlike those she’d been compared to who died young, she seemed to fight against burning out, determined to burn on.
Today we pay tribute to Amy’s songs, stories and her voice.
Kat Stevens on “Stronger Than Me”
Amy was never fond of her first album Frank, nor the label that put it out. I was ‘working’ for Island at the time, as an unpaid dogsbody in the press department. My main task was leafing through the morning’s delivery of papers and magazines, snipping out anything that mentioned our artists, sticking it to a bit of A4, photocopying it seven times, then carefully filing everything away in the big cabinet.
Amy wasn’t in the gossip magazines yet (the usual suspect there was Kym Marsh from Hear’Say who we technically hadn’t dropped yet) and the foul-mouthed girl certainly wasn’t in Just 17 with Busted and the Sugababes. Apart from a few one-paragraph reviews rehashing the press release, the only big interview spread she had was with the Sunday Times Magazine, which was slightly bigger than A4 and particularly difficult to photocopy. I had to make several attempts to shrink it down before it would fit in Amy’s tiny section of the filing cabinet. While I waited for the machine to chug away I stared at Amy’s sulky face and read her ‘refreshingly honest’ interview answers. I learned that she had named the album after her dog, that she drank in the worst pubs in Camden, and that lead single “Stronger Than Me” was a slickly-produced bitching letter to an incompetent, over-emotional boyfriend.
By the time I left Island, “Stronger Than Me” had totally tanked at #71, but that was OK because Sunday Times Magazine readers didn’t buy singles and it won an Ivor Novello instead. I would wager that it is the only song to win an Ivor Novello that includes the phrase “are you GAY???“. I’m quite glad Amy didn’t write a snarky song about my awful photocopying skills, even though I gave up in the end and chopped half her head off.
Alfred Soto on “You Sent Me Flying”
This anomalous single from Winehouse’s debut tries a couple of things at once, not always successfully, but when it comes to polysyllabic self-pity it’s a battered triumph. Slurring and pinching her voice like Erykah Badu over an early nineties shufflebeat, Winehouse hugs the piano as if hoping to squeeze a melody out of it.
Alex Ostroff on “I Heard Love Is Blind”
In the hands of a weaker writer or performer, the title, and the final couplet, would be nothing but a punch line. “Yes, he looked like you / But I heard love is blind,” sounds like the end of an elaborate musical joke, performed in a cabaret by a bawdy self-aware caricature, winking broadly at the audience. That this is the most affecting song on Frank proves the true measure of Amy’s songwriting. In the midst of a strong contemporary jazz album, defined by a strong personality and sass, “I Heard Love Is Blind” introduces the fatalistic voice that would define Back to Black as much as Mark Ronson and the Dap-Tones. “I couldn’t resist him – his eyes were like yours” Amy proclaims at the outset, proceeding to delve more and more explicitly into the details of her one night stand in an attempt to explain it, her guilt, and her agency, away. “I was thinking of you when I came” might be the least adequate excuse ever uttered, but it’s delivered with complete conviction. She protests that she was lonely and drunk — “What do you expect? You left me here alone.” — relocating blame and summing up “You Know I’m No Good” in a single couplet. The more she insists that “he looked like you,” the less sure she becomes, revising her recollections with an “I guess,” clinging to her belief that “it’s not cheating if you were on my mind,” as if her life depended on it. Her voice is strong, and so is her denial, but it’s equally clear that a glimpse of the truth would be too much to take. By the end of two minutes, Amy has painted a complete character, pained and human, whose awareness of her words’ ironies is only beginning to dawn as the song closes.
Anthony Easton on “Fuck Me Pumps”
In an ironic, cosmic way, it makes sense that Murdoch was in the biggest trouble of his career the same time that Winehouse died. If Winehouse wasn’t born, Murdoch would have to invent her, with the chaos, the tabloid sensitivity, the nostalgia of the music, and the sex scandals that rested on woman-in-peril themes.
If Winehouse was a deity in the pantheon of British tabloid sensitivity, her song “Fuck Me Pumps” must have been a beginning. A blistering fuck-off, with a wit that moves somewhere between Noel Coward and Catherine Tate, she acknowledges her own presentation was a kind of completive femininity — a drag of bone-crush seriousness and epic melodrama. But everything from this song could appear between page 1 and 20 in in The Sun.
Winehouse could be the Bizarro world page-three girl, her femininity is as performative, her sexual politics as retrograde, her nostalgia is as melancholy for a lost England, and her drug of choice could be fashionable, but was mostly booze. In this sense though “Fuck Me Pumps” quotes both Bowie and Joan Crawford, its stealth conservativeness suggests that she would become a martyr for the tabloid culture that birthed her.
Edward Okulicz on “Fuck Me Pumps”
People who are less insightful than they think wasted no time in pointing out Amy Winehouse died at 27, the same age as other talented artists who left too soon. More significant is that she wasn’t even 20 when she co-wrote and recorded “Fuck Me Pumps.” It won’t be what she’s remembered for, but it’s what I want to remember her for, because it’s a reminder that before both her fate and her public persona were set, she was young, vivacious and could have done anything.
“Fuck Me Pumps” casts an eye over the gold-diggers, but it is not to condemn; she admits they make part of her world go round over a sassy tune that hints at a path not taken more than briefly. Even before her lyrics betray her affection, her delivery on the line “You didn’t even get no taste” illustrates her sympathy. Contrast that with the way the tabloids demonised her ways while counting the sales any time they splashed an unflattering picture across their pages. Here, Winehouse was not just a good singer and songwriter, she was a keen, witty observer of others’ foibles long before her own came to unfairly define her as an artist in the eyes of the public. “Fuck Me Pumps” is a beautiful artifact of Amy the performer and the persona in a state of freedom before she and the rest of the world had made up their mind about Amy the person.
I only wish that her death would be a reminder that Amy, like other talented people who have struggled with drugs, was brilliant despite her troubles, her addictions, her torrid relationships and life, not because of them. The romantic myth of the tortured artist is a satisfying trope, but how many more must we lose before we realise and celebrate that creativity is the realm of the talented, the brave, the confident, not the wounded they sometimes become?
Jonathan Bogart on “Rehab”
“It’s just till these tears have dried.” Hearing autobiography in music is inevitable, especially once the artist is gone and can’t contradict our readings. But apparently she did go to rehab, yes yes yes. And regardless of whether the accusations of having been clean for months are factual or an attempt to get out in front of the nauseating narrative already building up, lichen-like, around her still-warm memory, the suggestion is a reminder that even in the age of twenty-four hour tabloid coverage, routine phone hacking, and unending breathless exposé, none of us can know everything about even the most public fuckup. Music is not autobiography; otherwise we might just as well give every songwriter a Livejournal and be done with it.
“Rehab” works not because it documents Amy Winehouse’s public struggle with addiction, self-sabotage, and an ever-baiting media, but because it inhabits a world recognizable enough to have connected with millions of people. “Can you let me go to hell the way I want to?” snarls Wild Bill Hickock in the early episodes of Deadwood, and the demand for self-determination at the cost of everything else is familiar to many of us whose minds and hearts have been taken captive by depression, addiction, or self-loathing to the point where even the most basic plea to be allowed to help is too painful a contact with the outside world. But Amy’s not content to let it lie there, in an attitude of furious rejection. Anyone can project a wounded fury onto the world; her brilliance is to fully expose the extent of her vulnerability. She doesn’t want to drink again; she just needs a friend. She’s not gonna spend ten weeks just so all the gossips and moralists will self-congratulate that she’s on the mend. But it’s not pride, an unwillingness to give them the satisfaction, that’s keeping her away – it’s just till these tears have dried. This insistence on experiencing everything, on being fully present for her pain, for every moment of her emotional roller coaster, is the true hallmark of soul music. Not, as Martin insisted, that the singers themselves are feeling anything, but that through the shrewd application of craft – through art – they make the listener experience it. The tough strut of the music, in its shrewd rock and build, gives attitude to her lyrics, and gives us the courage to sing along. Even the deepest pain can be turned into a communal experience, into a party, if you give it the right beat, and while we analyze, quantify, and explicate worlds of suffering, isolation, addiction, and fear, let us never forget either the joyfulness with which it was all expressed. A raised middle finger is the beginning of hope.
Ian Mathers on “You Know I’m No Good (Remix)” ft. Ghostface Killah
What’s weird about the remix of “You Know I’m No Good” is that it is at the same time great and yet completely horrifying; she’s not acting as a hook singer here, instead Ghostface hollows out her song and crawls around inside, but his narrative (one of his more unconsciously horrifying portrayals of misogyny, despite the awesome opening couplet of “Why you actin’ like you more trouble than Tony Starks, an’/You need to walk away, like Kelly Clarkson” – even if you want to skip over the “an open relationship means I can sleep around, not you” part, by the time he’s repeating “You can’t leave the kid, don’t forget I’ma be around forever” before progressing to the ostensibly-happy, blowjob-centered reunion that even an out-of-context Winehouse seems less than certain about, it’s hard not to cringe a little) isn’t really the same as Winehouse’s, even if they agree on one thing: she’s the one to blame. Over a durable Daptones backing groovy enough in isolation that a loop was used as the theme music to Secret Diary of a Call Girl (how’s that for inappropriate?), she gives maybe the bluntest, greatest example of her-even-more-tragic-in-retrospect fetish for self-destruction masquerading as love. She’s cheated herself, like she knew she would, but there’s no indication that he’s any good either (certainly neither Ghostface nor Blake Fielder-Civil qualify), and without much more information on what she’s done wrong than being asked what she did with someone else, her protestations during the chorus after a still impressive but rarely less likeable Ghostface busting out bullshit like “let me vibe with you, talk about your mistakes” makes her sound less femme fatale and more like someone who’s been told she’s evil so often she’s started to believe it. That “sweet reunion” in the last verse already sounded pretty awful in the original version, and there and here it’s to Winehouse’s credit that she clearly realizes that; if not at the very end, at least at the time of making Back to Black she was a functional, capable adult, and I’m not interested in trying to pin the blame for her descent on her husband or any other scumbag.
Unfortunately, at least as far as her public persona and her songs go, it seems clear that she bought into the myth that the course of true love never runs smooth, Sid’n’Nancy style. Into the same junkie bullshit that some people believe about heroin, only (or maybe also) about bad romance. She didn’t cheat herself by playing around on her One True Love, she cheated herself by buying into the idea that she’s (as we all know) trouble, that she deserves to be treated this way, that this is True Love and the rest of us just don’t understand. You have to sympathize with the trap she’s caught in (who doesn’t understand, at least a little, its allure?), and the fact that she never got out means that while my sympathies are still firmly with Winehouse, this song (as great as it is musically) sounds repellant, and even a little dangerous. Like the man says, we can forgive the past but we can never forget it.
Katherine St. Asaph on “Back to Black”
There’s an eerie feeling that happens when you encounter the work of someone who’s recently or distantly passed and finding it hits you too close. If you’d only read those words a week earlier, or a month, or a few centuries, your world would have budded new dimensions. It’s all too devastating, but it’s all too late.
Judging by numbers, there’s an outpouring every time someone dies. Much is sincere. Some is not, like the gasps at Amy Winehouse’s death from those who sneered and cheered it along weeks before or the condolences from who knew her as the trainwreck with that hilarious song about rehab. Pop culture has always been excellent at reducing people, particularly people in pain, into jokes, then making that status permanent. It doesn’t matter how many wino puns you made or laughed at; the osmosis is enough. Despite Winehouse’s clear and immediate impact on music –look at “Rolling in the Deep,” it was right in front of us – for years she wasn’t an artist to be cherished but a punchline to be deployed. Why bother with her back catalogue? All you needed to know was “no, no, no.”
All I could tell you a few weeks ago was “no, no, no.” I’d heard Back to Black once or twice, years after its release and diluted by its peers and successors, and I knew its legacy, intellectually at least. But none of the songs took, certainly not enough to displace the meme-stream of Winehouse headlines that appeared instead of new music. After her death, I listened to both albums again. Undoubtedly the shock had much to do with it, but what I heard wasn’t a curio or reproduction or knockoff, but a human who could feel and express and devastate.
On “Back to Black,” I heard it most. There’s the opening: a filtered piano line with another galumphing behind every bar, rickety as old floorboards and twice as eerie. Then Winehouse sings. Much has been made of her voice, but it’s her songwriting that startles you – specifically the opening couplet: “He left no time to regret / kept his dick wet….” This is frat-boy talk. Logically, it’d be followed up with “with his same old slampiece.” It excises all humanity from the proceedings. Here, it accomplishes two things: it shows us just how Winehouse thinks the guy thinks — slightly callous, completely unhurt — and it shows us her affected braggadocio, the same that’ll be undone as her voice cracks on “head high” and “tears dry.” If that wasn’t enough, every line ends in a sudden minor note; anything slightly hopeful in this song is a pretense.
When talking about “Back to Black,” everyone mentions the drug references, picking their every entendre to shreds. But they’re distractions, just as they are in real life. Here, they take up two lines. Life might be a pipe, but Winehouse only dwells on the drug reference long enough to set up the line “and I’m a tiny penny rolling up the walls inside,” completely changing the metaphor into something lonely and small. The rhythm may be singsong, and Winehouse might sing it that way, but it’s not for jaunt but for emphasis. Then there’s the bridge. Ronson’s production implodes, replaced by funereal bells and vague strings. Winehouse’s voice might as well be gone, muddled in its lowest range, wisping off its syllables and sounding like she’s miles from the mic. The instrumentation resumes for three-quarters of a chorus, but it’s unconvincing, and it too falls away for the final note.
To see Winehouse, who built her biggest hit and her continued career around embracing her tabloid image, thus negate herself and become lost in stagnant nothing, is devastating. To realize her point, that he goes back to something and she goes back to nothing and to being nothing, is worse still. “I loved you much,” Winehouse sings, right before the drug stuff so you’ll miss it. “It’s not enough.” Sometimes it doesn’t matter how much you love, or how great your talent or how moneyed your entourage or how known your name. You’re not enough, and amid addiction and mass jeering and label machinations, nothing could be. If there’s hope in “Back to Black,” it’s that Winehouse didn’t go back to obscurity. Her songs are public. It’s too late for anyone to hear them in the way she needed, but hearing them now will have to suffice.
Michelle Myers on “Addicted”
Amy had a knack for storytelling. With a few choice words, some concrete details, she could instantly pull you into her narrative. In “Addicted,” we know what’s happening straight away. She’s complaining to a friend whose freeloading boyfriend smoked all her weed, and that shit’s not cool. Her opening words, “tell your boyfriend,” are delightfully confrontational and demonstrate just how irritated Amy is. It’s lighthearted song in many ways. She makes an airport security joke, and you can actually hear her smile as she sings the chorus. Underneath, Mark Ronson layered bubbly jazz flute and some very floaty percussion. Still, it wouldn’t be an Amy Winehouse without a nugget of dark truth at its center. Marijuana’s not a particularly addictive substance, but by juxtaposing her pot dependence to her friend’s relationship, “Addicted” becomes a song about dependence in general. We’re all just trying to get ours. So what Amy gets from weed her friend gets from, well… there’s a dick pun for a reason here. Is it better to be hooked on the dro or the dick? At least Amy got to be her “own man.”
Brad Shoup on “Tears Dry On Their Own”
In these last days, audiences understand singles varnished with the sampled past. For those paying close attention or reading their online encyclopedias, “Tears Dry on Their Own” attempts a magic trick: to escape from the shackles of an ever-enduring Motown hit. Not just to escape the history of a carefully-deployed and -shaped sample, mind, but an interpolation of the entirety of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” (Briefly noted: the cleverness of negating texts.) Nearly every instrumental detail in “Tears” comes transferred, with varying altitude, from the Ashford-and Simpson-penned standard: James Jamerson’s bassline is augmented with low-end brass, woodwinds are boosted, the snare attacks with the force new technology affords, etc. These are the shackles, the water cell that Winehouse and producer Salaam Remi provide themselves. The trick is only completed as Winehouse supplants Marvin and Tammi’s fervent strain with a measured self-interrogation.
As ever, she has that distinctive voice, not wielding “pipes” so much as a sure hand on the turnwheel: fearlessly ending lines with the drawl of her natural pronunciation, but occasionally tossing off references to the usual swing ‘n’ torch vocal luminaries, as well as Lauryn Hill (cf. “fuck myself in the head over stupid men”). All the while she’s favoring texture over classic vibrato. Her jazz phrasing isn’t the invention of sad people making true-music heroes out of cheery dabblers; she’s all over the beat, pushing here, falling back there, befitting the song’s numerous lyrical switchbacks and mental castigation. Correctly viewed as one of the cleverest songwriters of the decade, Winehouse lays off the double-entendres here in favor of a couple vignettes and a strident refrain that tries to push the verses’ mental swirl and Sisyphean bass progression to some sort of conclusion. But that’s how change tends to work: the drastic event can’t be willed; there’s first a series of choices and abdications that can take all life long. The day comes, the tears dry: something is suddenly not like it was just the hour before.
Sally O’Rourke on “Love Is A Losing Game”
For detractors who scoff at Amy Winehouse’s songwriting style – the explicit references to drugs and sex over a tasteful jazz/soul backing – as a gimmick, “Love is a Losing Game” proves that Amy could write outside her persona without sacrificing her personality. The ballad is Amy’s boldest attempt at crafting a torch song that could have stood out in the repertoire of Peggy Lee or Etta James, had it been around half a century earlier. The lyrics are steeped in the tropes of classical poetry, from the extended gambling metaphor of the title to the alliteration sprinkled throughout (most elaborately, “memories mar my mind”).
But instead of coming across as impersonal or slick, this carefully constructed departure from Amy’s typical M.O. makes “Love is a Losing Game” one of her most direct, and, as a result, one of her most heartbreaking. There’s no winking here, no ratty beehive or pinup tattoos; just a young woman for whom love is the only four-letter word that truly hurts.
John Seroff on “Love Is A Losing Game (Demo)”
This is my Amy Winehouse story: in January 2007, I was working at the club where Amy played her first New York City gigs. She had already seen considerable success in the UK with Frank and her promoters sent the office a copy of the then as-yet-unknown in the US Back to Black in October of the year prior. I, along with the rest of our house crew, were quickly hooked. Within the industry and amongst music cognoscenti, the shows became hot tickets.
I spent the months leading up to her premiere telling anyone who would listen that Winehouse was sure to be a huge success stateside. Showtime came. We had heard the stories of Winehouse’s enfant terrible behavior but sound check was a well-mannered, timely thing. She was taking this seriously and she had every reason to: the club was a showcase space; a tiny stage and a tiny room, maxing out at 160. There would be no place to hide if the hype wasn’t justified. The 9:30 set was more a warm up than anything; Jay Z, Mos Def and the top tier press and recording execs were scheduled to arrive at 11:30. Amy was game for that first show but clearly bothered by nerves. She took the stage tentatively, sipping from a glass, requesting three or four more amaretto sours throughout the hour. The voice was there and the songs were strong but the stridency and intensity, so very clear on the album, was muted live. Amy spent much of that hour performing in profile, still too scared to face the house dead on.
Then there was a break between sets; the room was cleared and reset and packed again, this time with a more boisterous, more jaded industry crowd. Enter Winehouse, again with drink in hand but looser now, more sloshed. Around the third drink of that second set, the brass and blare of her old soul voice swelled, the fear disappeared and the public persona that was Amy Winehouse emerged for the first time on American shores. She killed. It was a great night but, as one of the few there who had the fortune to see both sets, it also came with a sad revelation: the woman needed no less than eight drinks just to feel comfortable on stage. Her pained protestations of addiction were no pose.
Here we are, not even five years later and already she’s gone. I’m so angry at her for taking away that lousy third album that would never live up to the promise of Black; for never making that muddled, shitty fourth album just for the cash; for denying me the amazing comeback album that was going to make my 2024 matter. I was willing to wait but Amy wasn’t. As a performer, she could be a powerhouse and a coquette, slyly winking her fake eyelashes and defiantly jutting out her bony chin. As a songwriter, her potential felt limitless. Her lyrics were filled with clever double entendres and personal jokes that made universal sense but, when she put aside humor, she could be absolutely devastating.
No other song demonstrates this more than “Love Is a Losing Game.” It is Winehouse at peak songwriting form, as timeless and powerful as anything McCarthy’s ever done. This demo, from a collection of odds and ends, is played nearly to perfection. Each syllable is grudging, withdrawn and utterly heartfelt. This is the face behind every sad song’s cliche, the undeniable sick beauty of pain and loss and of too much of it to even care anymore. The angel’s harp, the maudlin sentiment; these are the things that she ignores, embracing instead the truth, no matter how impossible to bear. Somewhere inside her, there was a thing broken and this was the sound it made. And here, at the end, in her thick accented slur she asks “S’that awright?” No Amy. It’s not right at all.
Andy Hutchins on “Valerie” (Mark Ronson ft. Amy Winehouse)
I can’t praise “Valerie” any better than anyone else here can — Winehouse sings it beautifully, with a balance between the black loneliness (“Since I’ve come home, yeah…”) and the sweetness (“Why doncha…”) inherent in a song to a love not quite lost — but I can praise how the “Valerie” video both gets Amy Winehouse right and shows her wrongs. It’s Mark Ronson’s show, really, with a weirdly shorn Wale being his 100 Miles-era charming self (“I’m feeling myself like I’ve lost … my … keys” gets acted out), and with an “Amy” whose resemblance is uncanny plucked from obscurity to give “Valerie” a go before “the Winettes” come up, one by one, each belting it in Winehouse’s distinctive voice.
There’s something appealing about that as a bizarro origin story: the video supports the thinking that Winehouse (“Winehouse,” maybe) had chops enough to do whatever she wanted musically, that she contained multitudes, and that she could make “Valerie” her own and sweet and sapphic and spurned; that’s what you’re supposed to get from the flawless rendition by the dopplegänger and her coterie. But the video also makes it seem like Winehouse needed help, especially from Ronson, to get it right; the lead “Amy” is only vaguely comfortable in the video, gussied up in a far nicer version of the pixie-harlot-junkie-chic marketing/bullshit/couture that the real Winehouse never quite fit, and Amy’s unavailability is what necessitates all the karaoke, and there’s a bit of being shown the words. It’s frustrating and gorgeous and great and too much all at once, and that, certainly, is Amy Winehouse. The one thing the video gets completely wrong, though? The chances of competent replacements existing in any number.
Michaela Drapes on “Valerie”
I don’t have any hard evidence to back this statement up, but I’m pretty sure I listened to this song every weekday morning for the entirety of 2007. I had just moved to New York, and was thrilled to ride the subway to work from Bed-Stuy to Chelsea every morning. I was still in a bit of shock at the enormous life change I’d made, and I needed a little stability in each day; my commute (outside of unexpected train delays) offered a little bit of that. And so did listening to Mark Ronson’s Version — and, well, specifically, “Valerie.”
I wasn’t ever a huge fan of Winehouse’s work; I passed on Frank (too gritty in the wrong ways for my tastes) and, in the wake of a imploding toxic relationship and too many nights spent out ’till closing time, Back to Black cut way, way too close to the bone. I didn’t find the personal dramas infusing her work compelling; they just made me sad; I had to look away. And though I will be the first to admit that I’m a bit of a Mark Ronson superfan, I’ve always thought his work on Back to Black was always a little hollow, teetering, unsure. As if he knew exactly what needed to be done, but was a bit spooked by the slightly terrifying emotional maelstrom of Winehouse’s songs. The arrangements and production dance around her melodies, but never fully connect. But here, both living in someone else’s song, they hit a jackpot. Ronson’s arrangement trips lightly on the original tune, gleefully smashing Motown and Stax influences into a strangely coherent sound, but it’s Winehouse’s uncharacteristically bubbly interpretation of the lyric that pulls some kind of mad crazy conjuring trick, turning this erstwhile sad drunk-o-dial booty call into a sweet confection that can almost convince me that in that one take, on that one day, none of the bullshit mattered, and everything was bright and lovely and perfect. And they all really were having far, far too much fun.