In the days since Amy Winehouse's death, some of the world's best critics have penned tributes to the singer and her small but incredibly memorable body of work. Here's a collection of some of the best essays out there, in which sharp writers offer critical insight into her distinct persona, tabloid notoriety and intriguing take on soul, jazz and hip-hop.
Ben Sisario, New York Times: "The interplay between Ms. Winehouse’s life and art made her one of the most fascinating figures in pop music since Kurt Cobain, whose demise in 1994 — also at age 27 — was preceded by drug abuse and a frustration with fame as something that could never be escaped."
Randall Roberts, Los Angeles Times: "It takes focus right now to actually hear Amy Winehouse’s voice amid all the chatter, to appreciate the breath and hum that created Back to Black, her devastating second, and final, album. After all, the lurid, sad craziness of her addiction, to which she apparently succumbed over the weekend at her home in London, was her story line — as was failure — and her honesty and openness in tackling the subjects, coupled with her charisma and vocal swagger, was her allure. Had she sung about her family trying to make her go to a barbecue instead of rehab or had she titled her breakout album Back to Pink well, you wouldn’t be reading this right now. Her story was her trouble."
Nitsuh Abebe, New York Magazine: "The work was beautiful, I think, because Winehouse was extremely smart about how risk works when you’re making art. She understood that the steely, arm’s-length confidence of modern pop singers — the ones who command, demand, and let you know how little shit they take — can only get you so far. You can’t really exhibit grace or toughness without having something hanging over you; it’s like weightlifting without the weights. So the most “retro” thing about Back to Black turned out not to be its period styling or vintage detail, but that streak of woeful resignation borrowed from old jazz records."
Lidija Haas, London Review of Books: "A gift to gossip writers, Winehouse was nonetheless famous for actually being good at something. She was retro even in her celebrity; one of the most exposed in a culture of unprecedented over-exposure, she still appeared mysterious, as if she was disguised as herself. ‘I heard that she wakes up every day four hours before her husband to put on her face,’ she once said of Dolly Parton. ‘Four hours! I think that’s cool.’ The look that spawned a hundred Halloween costumes was an oddly flexible one, which seemed to compress Winehouse’s whole story, just as her lyrics often did: the witty, cartoonish glamour was there, but also the cracks, the ruin. She looked as if everything had already happened to her."
Laura Barton, The Guardian: "Pop music had often cast women as sweet, bright creatures, but Winehouse's lyrics revealed something mulchier, messier. Here was a woman who refused to conform – not in the eccentric mad woman in the attic mould of Kate Bush or Björk, but a woman who chose to live a little wild, follow her heart and sing of the simple stew of being female. Her songs were filled with broad talk, cussing, drink and drugs and dicks, songs that could hinge on one magnificent, unladylike question: "What kind of fuckery is this?""
Zach Baron, The Daily: "The music on Back to Black was backward-looking, but smartly so. Winehouse’s voice was an alto croak that suggested damage she hadn’t yet done to it. Her allegiances to ’60s soul and ’40s jazz were deep but conditional. From the girl groups she so lovingly referenced, Winehouse cherry-picked the most modern ideas: the tragic and tactile storytelling of songs like “Leader of the Pack,” say, rather than the unquestioning euphoria of “Give Him a Great Big Kiss.”
Maura Johnston, Village Voice: "When she was on, Winehouse had few peers—she wasn't an octave-jumper like other big divas of the moment, but her contralto had a snap to it that enriched even the simplest syllables with a full spectrum of emotion. Back To Black was filled with aching songs like "Love Is A Losing Game" and "You Know That I'm No Good" that chronicled mutually detrimental relationships and the people who stayed in them, for whatever reasons they had."
Jess Harvell, Pitchfork: "Winehouse was never one for "light" subject matter. In another genre-- say, confessional coffee-shop folk-- her most self-lacerating moments might have come off too maudlin to bear. But the songs have a confidence gleaned from Motown and a swagger learned from rap that makes all the difference. Even down and out, she could still throw down, kick it out. It was the attitude and self-possession she exuded on tape that remains startling, whatever her extra-musical activities of the last few years."
Bill Wyman, Slate: "Indeed, Winehouse's intents are plain. Other songs, less deliberately allusive, go down rabbit holes of romantic and sexual rationalization, but often with an element of what might be called mischievousness were the subjects not so unsavory. In one cold-blooded track on her first album, the grandiosely titled "I Heard Love Is Blind," Winehouse insists to her lover that a dalliance she'd had didn't mean anything. But as the song goes on, she twists the knife ("I couldn't resist him/His eyes were like yours"), progressively dropping ever more explicit details of the encounter—the ones she could remember, anyway: "It was dark and I was lying down.""
Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, MTV Hive: "Before the spectre of addiction took over, it was this womanly pain that tied her so intimately with the soul music of the ‘50s and ‘60s – so buyable as a reincarnation of the ladies of Motown and Stax. Girl groups and soul divas of those eras used their music to both liberate themselves and to tell their tales; in essence, singers like Mavis Staples and Candi Staton were carrying on an oral tradition of validating women’s lives through documentation. It was decades after feminism’s second wave, though Winehouse sounded still bound by the same problems of a half-century ago, and it was more than just Mark Ronson’s loping brass section on the downbeat."
Sasha Frere-Jones, The New Yorker: "Nobody can match Winehouse’s unique transitions or her utterly weird phrasings. She sounded like an original sixties soul star, developed when the landscape had no rules. But now untrammeled traditionalism is in the lead and her beautiful footnote has been cut short. American soul—through visionaries like Erykah Badu and Janelle Monae and Jill Scott—had moved on. But Winehouse was a fine shepherd of the past. What hurts most is how “Back to Black” hadn’t completed the idea. There were more songs, maybe many. Now? The jukebox is off and we're being ushered back home, with no address."
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