It’s very rare that my wife turns me on to music. She only likes a handful of acts, and tends to listen to them repeatedly. But she did me a great favor when she slipped me some Amy Winehouse a few years ago. Normally, I’m suspicious of Brits trying to pull off American jazz and soul, the same way I’m suspicious of Koreans making Texas BBQ and the French making rap music. Even if they love the idiom and aren’t just exploiting it, that sometimes leads them to make fawning imitations rather than something wholly original.
Not so, Ms. Winehouse, a chanteuse of such sensitivity that it often seemed to border of emotional contortion, a woman who innovated around notes the way great painters played with lines, bending notes as if they belonged inside the trombones and trumpets she was playing off. I dismiss much of the visual style that goes along with popular music, though I must also admit that Winehouse etched a great image for herself–a Goth/punk Mary Poppins with a Cockney voice to match. But it was that voice that rightly catapulted her into the Pantheon. There are a lot of people who put Billie Holiday’s vocal inflections into modern arrangements–think of Macy Gray or Madeleine Peyroux (who masterfully sings Bob Dylan as if he’d been writing for Holiday the whole time). But I think it’s trickier to do against girl group horns and hip-hop beats. If I had to compare instruments, I’d say Holiday’s was more like a clarinet, Winehouse’s more like a bassoon–reedy, rougher, but in her masterful approach, just as vulnerable with a great emotional range that could couch very salty punk rock language amid strings and girl group bombast and come up with something completely different.
I heard a really wrong-headed and simplistic assessment on Facebook Saturday shortly after I heard about Winehouse’s tragic but not remotely surprising death: “Not as good as Janis.” Thus goes the luckless reasoning of the sports fan who wanders into music. A quick reminder, Amy Winehouse wasn’t competing in a Round Robin (“Who was the most fucked up female drug addict soul singer? Mary Hart’s got the results tonight.”) She wasn’t engaging in a fantasy boxing match. (“I’ll bet Janis Joplin could kick Amy Winehouse’s ass,” say the nerds.) As long as we’re going to be obnoxious, I’ll remind the critic that Janis Joplin often tripped into the hysteria range. Amy Winehouse, a more subtle singer, was mostly a fuck up in her private life.
It’s a bit hackneyed to say that great artists are people of great sensitivity, and I don’t like the suggestion that the great ones are all fuck ups or that they have to be. The idea that drugs necessarily play a part in great art is one of those hard-to-die pervasive beliefs most mythologized among those with the least amount of talent and imagination. You need only look at Zappa and Woody Allen and Wayne Coyne and several others to notice that drug free artists are not only sometimes more imaginative but also more prolific. It’s not enough to be greatly sensitive or greatly imaginative but also masterful enough to employ those qualities to your advantage. The need to self-medicate is largely innocuous to these traits if not detrimental (a few people have pointed out already that Winehouse’s drug problems increased as her output decreased over the last few years). If you believe, as David Bowie once pointed out, that the true definition of imagination is the ability to see the affinities of things to illuminate a subject, then you would think drugs are a good way to open up new ways of thinking, but would then also help you quickly fall into a rut if you stayed with them. If you’ve ever known an addict (and I’ve known a few) you probably know how a lot of them are prone to ritual and superstition and repetitive cycles of behavior. This could as easily lead you to artistic retread and make your art as problematic as it would be if you were merely unimaginative.
So now I’ll sound like grumpy old man: Every time I go to the store, I’m bombarded with images of the no-talents who now make up our pantheon, most of them reality TV stars. It makes me sick that someone not only genuinely talented, but also truly imaginative, innovative and bold (something that could describe almost no American Idol contestant) had to go so soon and leave us adrift in a world of pandering hacks. Winehouse’s reputation is going to grow as more people figure out how good she was. Of course, there is probably a horrible romanticism that’s going to sprout after her very unglamorous death, as there was with all the members of the 27 Club. But hopefully we can all look through it and see genius for what it is and addiction for what it is. Not necessarily must the twain meet.