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Jo Hale/Getty Images Amy Winehouse

The Circular Ruins

Remembering Amy Winehouse

The first time I heard “Rehab,” I was sitting in a bar in the Mission District of San Francisco. I was with an old friend of mine, who, for some unknown reason, refuses to listen to music recorded after 1975. We both liked this particular bar because the jukebox was good — in San Francisco, especially in the Mission, you are always choosing between the white noise of dozens of bloggers and social-networking entrepreneurs yelling about the Internet, or some bearded bartender’s idea of what is both hip and ironic, which usually means AC/DC or Metallica. I don’t remember what we were talking about, but at some point, after about an hour of Sam Cooke and Steve Earle, someone got tired of our lame, hipster-dinosaur choices and put on “Rehab.” I remember asking my friend who the hell was singing. He told me the song was new. Just as I was registering my disbelief, Jay-Z’s verse kicked up.

At first, I wanted to dislike her. Mostly because the dregs of my hard-knock hip-hop wannabe adolescence objected to the idea of a white girl fronting what was undeniably the coolest doo-wop band in the world. The next day, I downloaded Back to Black, played it on repeat, and wrote something very bad and very earnest about the “arranged marriage between soul and hip-hop,” and how it was “interesting” and “predictable” that the two had finally given birth to a gawky girl from England. I was wrong, of course — at least as wrong as someone can be about pop music — but when I heard the news on Saturday that Amy Winehouse had been found dead in her apartment in London, I dug that document up out of my hard drive, read it over, and wondered if there would ever again be a moment when the process of building pop-star golems out of vintage threads would yield someone as charismatic, and, yes, authentic, as Amy Winehouse.

In recent years, soul music has become an approximation. If you are a “soul singer,” (whatever that means) your stage must be cluttered with antiques. If Erykah Badu hadn’t put her hair up in a wrap and wore dull silver jewelry in unexpected places, would she be anything more than a beautiful girl squawking (prettily) over a stripped-down retro bassline? For the majority of her career, Amy Winehouse played the part of the throwback. She had Nina Simone’s beehive, Robert Smith’s mascara, Johnny Rotten’s jacket and missing tooth. And yet, where other throwbacks may have seemed affected, inert and cleansed, Amy Winehouse’s pawn shop of doo-wop knick-knacks and cultural references felt earned, somehow.

Our hyperlinked society has ported itself into a thoroughly referential era, where the nods to the past no longer evoke something real, but rather, the nods are just nods to the nods themselves. Our listening habits have followed suit. The catchy, heavy-rotation single has become the only bankable product, and any project that cannot generate its own buzz has been waylaid in favor of the overly produced, Auto-Tuned, YouTube-verified flavor of last month. Because there is too much risk involved, once-reliable commodities are repackaged and recycled. A healthy portion of iTunes sales come from Glee, a television show that tries to devour every era of American pop at the same time. Lady Gaga is just an amalgam of old Madonna, old-ish Madonna, and a well-funded drag masquerade. Pop music is now just a boring version of Girl Talk.

Within this circuitous landscape, where does one place a hatchet-faced neo-doo-wopper whose songs were deliberate anachronisms, but whose live shows always straddled the ravine that separates genius from a discomforting debauchery? That was always the strange duality of Amy Winehouse — she was a product of our synthetic times, but the force of her performance and the unfolding tragedy of her battle with addiction seemed to hearken, earnestly, back to an era when music demanded its own significance. She, somehow, was a predictable creation who took her given music contraption and blew it out.

The limits of language and our postmodern hoods preclude earnest conversation about music — all that’s said, really, is that music is music and corporations are corporations and we should just shut up and either appreciate it or ignore it altogether. Outside of pulling from a grab bag of ornate adjectives and music-speak adverbs, there is simply no good way to describe the fact that Amy Winehouse was realer than, say, Katy Perry — her music, more authentic and earned; her spectacle, more compelling. I suppose the best way to put it would be this: If we indulge both fantasies, it’s just better to believe a British girl obsessed with Donny Hathaway, Nina Simone, Dinah Washington, and hip-hop would pull together a drug-fueled hybrid of those influences and deliver it without hesitation or modesty. I don’t even know what the Katy Perry fantasy would be. Perhaps, that is the difference.

In soul music, sexuality should never be self-evident. Stank, a term which loosely defines the oomf a singer puts into a phrase, is at its purest when it comes from an outsider, who, for whatever reason, wants, nay, needs, to assert herself onto the audience. Pretty girls have a particularly tough time with stank — as much as Beyoncé snarls and groans and humps the stage, it’s tough to believe that Queen B. has ever been anything but the Queen. The evidence of her hotness engulfs the timbre of her insistence. But because Amy Winehouse was odd-looking, because she dressed like a scarecrow at a Hot Topic sample sale, the assertion of her sexuality had to be grounded elsewhere. Her stank was borrowed, sure, from old-school hip-hop, from Etta James, from Marvin Gaye, but the sight of her weird, deteriorating body on stage (did we ever think the breast implants were anything but a middle finger to the expectations placed on female singers?) combined with the stank she put on every note could transport the sight of a gangly woman staggering around on stage into that rare, sexualized arena where the song becomes an incandescent thing, where the audience collectively holds its breath as the thingness of the song spreads out into their chests.

Here is her best example, with annotation.

0:06 She brought her own Pips! Those dance moves, however, are taken straight from the Temptations, probably from some long-forgotten performance of “My Girl.” Right away, we’re in two eras at once. And isn’t it nice that we can have a white girl singing with three black back-up singers who are performing dance moves from the 1960s and the one thought that rises up through all the silly chatter is, “Holy shit, she looks cool.” The flower in the hair, the black ruffled lace dress both set the bar high — if you’re going to come out dressed like punk Billie Holiday, you better measure up.

0:11 This is called stagger-strutting — it’s what you do when you’re a bit drunk and want to hint that some better dance moves lurk under the surface, but you’re keeping them under lock for when you need them. Standard way to set up a performance like this — lets everyone know you’re about to get loose.

0:28 I love the scowl, the half-grimace on the first syllable of “tan-que-ray.” Straight out of the Etta James/Mary J. Blige playbook — also known as the “stank exclamation point.”

0:56 First time Amy looks straight into the camera and does the half-salute off her rib cage. Any hip-hop fan recognizes that move from every 50 Cent video ever.

1:17 This is where the high-wire act begins — everything up to this point has been referential and imitative. This doesn’t mean it’s been bad — quite the contrary. But when the song builds and you need to really fuck up some notes, do you have that next level of stank to complete the transmutation and turn this charming, anachronistic parlor scene into something better? Here, Amy blows right through it. Duffy would have fallen flat on her face, by the way. The illusion would have been broken and someone would have said, “Why is this girl pretending like she’s Gladys Knight and it’s still 1972?”

1:39 That’s not a pretty face. But goddamn, when she yells, “My Blake!” who watching this right now doesn’t wish that she was yelling your name?

2:09 Mugging the camera again. That’s almost a Keith Murray face there.

3:10 Not quite a crotch-grab, more of a coquettish, flirty curtsey. The Marilyn.

4:11 This is the most important point of the performance, where she has to elevate what has been an admittedly flat past minute with theatrics, both vocal and dance-based. She starts out with the parakeet strut, goes to the hand-on-hip-and-point move (but with the Satan salute in lieu of the point), before transitioning straight into the “push you up the hill” move. That’s going from two Diana Ross moves straight into an Aretha standard, but all of it done in a staggered, half-cocked way.

5:40 This is where the postmodern, music-blogging brain implodes into a chorus of apologies. I want to apologize for pointing out (fervently) a meaningful (possibly) moment in the life of someone who has just died. I also want to point out that same moment, fervently, for earnest reasons. I want to pooh-pooh anyone who would have the gall to suggest that any televised moment is “real,” I want to write 500 words about what the word “real,” means in the “zeitgeist,” I want to tweet out the video link and the hashtag, but hide behind an ironic emoticon, I want to make a joke about the Grammys and link to the time when Homer Simpson threw his Grammy off the balcony. Despite all these interruptions, it’s touching to watch a young woman realize that her life is probably not exactly what she thought her life had been.

In the rotating cast of music icons, there will always be a space reserved for a strung-out girl who sings, with brio and aplomb, about her very bad problems. As such, it always felt as if the public wanted to watch her teeter on the edge of the ravine. Those very bad problems had to be structured around a tabloid narrative. Without the bad romance, the drugs, the eating disorders, and, most importantly, the photographic evidence of an unraveling, she might have just been what she was after the release of Frank — a talented girl singing old songs in a smoky contralto.

Despite the escalating body count and the recorded evidence, we will probably never know whether musicians need to live out their lives on ugly side of that ravine. Would Kurt Cobain have been better without the heroin? What about Hunter S. Thompson? Jack Kerouac? Billie Holiday? The story of Amy Winehouse included an epiphanic moment, in which the torrent of her relationship with Blake Fielder-Civil submarined her down into uncharted depths of rapture and depression. There, she found the inspiration for Back to Black, the 33 minutes that carried her into the international spotlight. Then, as the myth ultimately dictates (every debt must be paid), the same gyre that inspired her was also what took her life.

I have no idea if there is any truth to this storyline or whether my sympathies fall on the side of the living poets who plead to their colleagues that yoga, detachment, and cold-pressed oils can replace the inspiration found at the bottom of a bottle or at the barrel end of a shotgun. But there are times when pain and drugs can push an artist to create something truly heartbreaking and memorable. Watching Townes Van Zandt slur and apologize his way through “Tower Song” cuts your lungs in half and shrinks the room so that all you can see is a beat old man singing his sad songs. Amy Winehouse never engaged us at that depth — we wanted her to be half-drunk, staggering around, mocking what we had made of her.

Within that realm of music opinion and celebrity reaction, the reality of someone’s life carries no meaning. Nobody would have been surprised, really, if Amy Winehouse’s problems had been marketing ploys, just as nobody was surprised at the news of her death. Until the corpse shows up, there is a collective suspension of disbelief, where we put aside the reality of the icon in favor of our desire to turn her into social-media chaff. This was certainly true of Amy Winehouse — as the months between albums turned into years, she was reduced to a talking point. The fact that Amy Winehouse stayed within the public eye could be a testament to the power of her music or it could just betray what happens when someone famous gets fucked up before the other shoe falls. I suppose it doesn’t matter either way — nothing about Amy Winehouse’s death teaches us something we didn’t already know. And yet, in the footage of the 2008 Grammys and in the too-small library of her songs, Amy Winehouse showed us that there is a way to put down stakes in the flood that turns everything into everything else, what once was into what is now, and what is now into a hodgepodge of what can be repackaged and resold.

Jay Caspian Kang is an editor at Grantland. His debut novel, The Dead Do Not Improve will be published by Hogarth/Random House in Summer 2012. Follow him on twitter at @jaycaspiankang.

Previously from Jay Caspian Kang:
The cultural impact of Yao Ming
Jan Vesely’s dunk contest plans
Immigrants and the importance of Ichiro

Filed Under: Amy Winehouse, Celebrities, Jay Caspian Kang, Music, People