It used to be that when America fought a war, we’d see on TV the caskets draped in the flag of our country. We’d know the price paid, and we’d feel that loss in a visceral way.
Minutes after CNN announced that Amy Winehouse had died, they started playing, on a loop, the image of her body in a bag being removed from her London apartment. The 27-year-old soul singer-songwriter lost the battle of depression, addiction and exploitation like so many musicians before her, but it’s arguable that there’s never been a pop icon whose art, from the very beginning of her career, was linked to romantic strife and self-destruction, and whose struggle with her private demons was publicly documented to the same extent as Winehouse. We’ve made war more mysterious, and pop stars all too real.
Winehouse’s realness has always been both attractive and repellent: “Stronger Than Me,” her very first single and the lead song on her 2003 debut album Frank lambasts a lover so unsparingly that she calls him a lady boy and questions his sexual orientation. It’s a nasty song, but it comes with a riveting performance released in her native England days after her 20th birthday. Although Frank didn’t hit American racks until late 2007 after the worldwide success of her second and final album Back to Black, it already suggests what its successor confirms: Here is a young woman who’s done her musical homework and can scat and sing standards like a bebop vet, yet slurs her phrasing and spews impudent lyrics as if unafraid to get expelled from any academy that would dare to tame her.
Back to Black distilled the strongest elements of Frank‘s sour ‘n’ sweetness: It plays like a documentary of her marriage to then-husband Blake Fielder-Civil as shot through the bottom of a whiskey glass. There are times when her diction is so mush-mouthed that she sounds as if she’s either very high or indescribably low. Everything’s written and sung in a conflicted, self-hating first person; death looms both as a central metaphor and a distinct possibility, and when she’s at her most sober, she’s despairing. That moment, “Love Is a Losing Game,” is remarkable exactly because it’s so resigned.
Like the music of Kurt Cobain, Ian Curtis, Janis Joplin and other tormented musicians who died before they found peace, Winehouse’s small but artistically substantial discography weighs heavier than ever because we now know how the story ends. Even when “Rehab” was a new song, it felt like a warning its creator could not heed. Now it’s a cruel epitaph, and that’s a shame.
Although her artistry is now forever linked with her demise, it was surely what kept her alive while vultures circled. Her beloved Shangri-Las were so powerful because these streetwise girls confronted fatality and their attraction to bad boys with pop opera dramaturgy. Winehouse’s vitality was, likewise, what made her update on ’60s girl-group pop and soul more far more than a revival, even if what now seems like an accompanying death wish also turned it uncanny.
In her David LaChapelle-directed video for “Tears Dry on Their Own,” she walks through Los Angeles’s Echo Park as if trapped in a Brit’s nightmare of America. Prostitution is everywhere, a nut-job proclaims “THE END IS NEAR” on a homemade sandwich sign, and people keep bumping into her without apology, yet Winehouse keeps singing. This resilience captures a poetic truth. This would-be Ronette with the Cleopatra eyes and the messy beehive relied on love – however destructive – as her sole navigating force, one that ultimately turned against her. She walked off a cliff with it because she couldn’t find the means to love herself.