Obituary: Amy Winehouse

Amy Winehouse performs in Amsterdam, 2007 | Flickr

Amy Winehouse performs in Amsterdam, 2007 | Flickr

 

I started listening to an Amy Winehouse playlist and got really into it. Research lead to musing lead to writing an obituary.

Amy Winehouse, British retro-soul singer who gained international fame with her contralto voice and brazen personality died Saturday in her London home. The cause of death is currently described as “unexplained.” She was 27.

During Winehouse’s career as a singer songwriter, she composed two albums: Frank (2003), inspired by her love of Frank Sinatra and Back to Black (2006), which won Best Pop Vocal Album at the Grammy’s in 2008. The dark, confessional album was also nominated for Album of the Year. Winehouse was also the recipient of five Grammy awards in 2008. She rose to worldwide stardom with the single “Rehab,” and wrote many other hit songs like “Back to Black” and “You Know I’m No Good.” Her achievements as an artist stretched beyond her awards. Past her ability to contextualize older genres into contemporary pop, and into the influence she had on pop music in the 1990s through the 2000s.

In a time period marked by the emergence of female pop music that was superficial and packaged, Winehouse was an artist of substance, fascinated with the past. Her influences were firmly rooted in the movements of jazz and soul, marked by brassy trumpets and low, breathy vocals. She loved Motown like Otis Redding, and modeled her sound after girl groups in the 50s and 60s like The Ronettes. Winehouse was also a fan of contemporary hip-hop and rap, like Mos Def and Nas. She drew on gospel. Its clear in the gritty sincerity of her voice that she was inspired by gospel-style singers like Mahalia Jackson and Aretha Franklin. Winehouse embraced a crossover of jazz, blues, soul and pop that the world has never seen before. She was a self-made pioneer for female vocalists who raised the bar for similar upcoming female artists like Adele and Lily Allen, who have cited Winehouse as an influence.

“There’s no point in saying anything but the truth. Because, at the end of the day, I don’t have to answer to you, or my ex, or a man in a suit from the record company. I have to answer to myself,” Amy Winehouse told the Guardian in 2004. What partitioned her as an artist and performer was her defiant yet vulnerable demeanor. Her body was a canvas of tattoos that patterned her pale skin and reached down her chest and arms. She was often covered by thigh-gripping dresses, and her face brightened by colored hoop earrings. Her petite frame was held up by chunky platform heels and ballet pumps on the red carpet. Her beehive of black hair inspired by the style of The Ronettes swooped on top of her head and became her trademark. Paired with her signature cat-like eyeliner, Winehouse was not only a musical icon, but a style icon. To the eyes, Winehouse was an emulated, visual mélange of style from the artists of the decades that so passionately influenced her.

Unfortunately not uncommon for young, pioneering talent, Winehouse had a public struggle with drugs and alcohol that both harmed and fueled her career. In what seemed like a constant battle with the press, Winehouse’s musical career was often overshadowed by the public’s obsession with tragedy. She was pegged with an image as a spiraling artist, tortured by her addiction to hard drugs and her relationship with ex-husband Blake Fielder-Civil, a producer from London. Her grapple with addiction became a tabloid expose.

Nonetheless, Winehouse was a phenomenally talented singer with a deeply mature connection to her creative side. “I wouldn’t write anything unless it was personal to me. I wouldn’t be able to tell a story right or really fill out the song with words because I wouldn’t have done it.” On her songwriting process, she said, “A lot of it is stuff, I’ve been through. And even if its personal in a sad way, I would never let it just be that. I’ll make it funny. I’ll always put a punch line in the song.”

Amy Winehouse was born in the Southgate area of London on September 14, 1983 to parents Mitchell, a Frank Sinatra-loving taxi driver, and Janis Winehouse, a pharmacist. Amy’s first creative influencer was Frank Sinatra, whose songs she sang and memorized with her father as a young girl, and who her debut album Frank was affectionately named after. Her parents divorced when she was 9, around the time Amy’s grandmother recognized her vocal talent and encouraged her to attend the Sylvia Young Theatre School. At school she was continually reprimanded for her defiant attitude and rule-breaking proclivities, but she continued to sing.

Manager Simon Fuller picked up teenage Winehouse when she was performing at local pubs, and she later started working with producers Salaam Remi and Mark Ronson. Success from Frank sent her performing at jazz festivals and eventually on international tour. Her single “Rehab,” a pouty, melodic refusal of her label’s request for her to check into rehabilitation facilities became a hit, and Back to Black rose to number one on the UK Albums Chart, as well as number seven on the Billboard 200 in the US. Back to Black became Britain’s best selling album of the year in 2007, selling nearly 2 million copies.

In 2008, the singer was nominated for six Grammy awards and asked to perform live at the show. However the U.S. Department of State would not approve her visa due to a collective concern for her health and safety. However this did not stop Winehouse from appearing – it was arranged for a live taping of “Rehab” and “You Know I’m No Good” to be sent from London to the U.S. through satellite. She sang with her band at 3 A.M. London time and appeared on CBS during the Grammy awards show, proving that she was still alive and singing.

Amy Winehouse wore her heart on her sleeve with musical genius and craft for lyrical vulnerability. From London jazz pubs to worldwide success, she fought through a turbulent career path and stayed true to her roots as a singer and innovator of pop music. Elle critic Karen Durbin said of Winehouse’s transformation, “You see the moment when the girl becomes something fiercer and weirder, and the ordinary pretty-girl makeup turns to war paint.” Winehouse’s work was drawn from heartbreak, desertion and the pain that accompanies addiction and exposed outwardly and bravely through her demimonde persona. It was her honesty, pain and vulnerability as an artist that her fans identified with, and that human connection she was able to make with the world that brought her critical acclaim

Her music continually redeemed her, saving her from relapse. “I didn’t want to just wake up drinking and crying and listening to the Shangri-Las, and go to sleep, and wake up drinking and listening to the Shangri-Las. So I turned it into songs and that’s how I got through it,” she explained.

At 20 years old just after Frank was released, Winehouse said, “My greatest fear is dying with no one knowing of any contribution I’ve made to music. But if I died tomorrow, I’d still feel fulfilled in a way.”

She is survived by her mother Janis, her father Mitchell and her older brother, Alex.

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