Pop Goes the Culture
By Paul Tatara
Amy Winehouse may not be dead by the time you read this, but it won’t be for lack of trying. Winehouse, of course, is a British singer-songwriter whose personal demons have, at this point, essentially overwhelmed her significant gifts as a pop stylist. Her most recent album, an instant retro-classic called Back to Black, reverberates with a mix of dark humor and gum-snapping, tough-girl wisdom that seems anachronistic mainly in its unchecked intensity. She’s one of the most exciting talents I’ve heard in a long, long time, not that it’s kept her from starring in an ongoing Page Six freak show.
You can’t help but marvel at the sheer ballsiness of Winehouse’s approach on tunes like “Back to Black, “Love is a Losing Game,” and “Tears Dry on Their Own.” Her sultry voice is a remarkable hipster instrument that owes a great deal to Ronnie Spector and her beehive whoa-whoa-whoa, and Winehouse milks the sidewalk drama for all it’s worth. I’m telling you, when she gets going, it’s enough to make the hair stand up on the back of your neck. When she moans for your approval, you gladly hand it over.
The problem with all this is that Winehouse gives it to you straight, and apparently takes it straight, too. And she and many of her fans have been—for lack of a better word—celebrating the fact that she’s got chemicals running through her veins that really don’t need to be there. Without putting too fine a point on it, those chemicals are on the verge of killing Amy Winehouse, and you don’t have to be William Burroughs to see it coming. Calling this turn of events depressing doesn’t do it justice. It’s like watching someone scrawl a death’s head on a valentine.
The litany of Winehouse’s ugly collapse is too long and mortifying to detail. Suffice it to say that she’s made a first-rate spectacle of herself, with acts ranging from show biz as usual (too wasted to properly make it through a performance, then threatening crowd members who walked out) to downright scary (an incoherent, winter-weather stagger while wearing nothing but a bra and a pair of jeans.) And more than a few people seem to think this sort of thing adds a new level of power to her recordings.
Call it the Billie Holiday Syndrome . . . and if that reference gives you a secret little thrill, a jolt of the pleasantly tawdry, we need to talk. The next time you spot an actual CD store—I know it’s not easy—take note of how many Chet Baker recordings are currently available in the jazz section. Baker was, at best, a lyrical trumpet player who conveyed a deep melancholy through his breathy, lighter-than-ether vocals. Debuting during the golden era of jazz, he was little more than a memorably swinging performer who walked in a land dotted with giants. His lifelong dance with heroin, however, eventually transformed him into the patron saint of the glamorously wounded, and his “legend” grew from there.
Baker played his addiction, and all the broken dreams it engendered, far more fervently than he ever played his trumpet. And it sustained him long enough that he could die a gallant junkie’s death, by falling from an Amsterdam balcony at the ripe old age of 58. He looked to be about 85 at the time, truly dead before he ever stopped breathing. Let’s give ourselves a big round of applause for helping him nurse his delusion.
Don’t get me wrong here. I know full well that joints will be smoked and pills will be popped. And, on the uglier end of the spectrum, needles will be plunged into a wide variety of arms. That’s how it’s always been, and that’s how it always will be. But Winehouse’s public self-poisoning is now verging on performance art, and gawking at it while we eat breakfast, or, worse yet, imagining that it reveals something special about her, makes us all complicit in the act. Bad art, after all, requires a bad audience.
No less an authority than Lou Reed once noted that people start doing drugs because it makes them feel good, not because it eventually ends up ruining their lives. Much of Amy Winehouse’s music thrills me, in a very real way. But I’ve started getting a knot in my stomach when I listen to her. She’s at a dangerous impasse these days, and she needs to grab the reigns, but tight. You have to wonder what she’s aiming for. If she manages to make a clean break from this hard life, she won’t be taking her heartbreak with her. She’ll just pass little pieces of it to all the people who were desperately pulling for her to survive. There’s little vindication in that.
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