Some voices you recognize instantly. The anguished screeching moans of Kurt Cobain, the raspy growl of Tom Waits or the laidback patter of Snoop Dogg require less than five seconds to identify. Add to this list Amy Jade Winehouse, whose various drug addictions finally caught up with her over the weekend. She was 27.
While associated with the “soul revival” of performers like Sharon Jones and Eli Reed, Amy offered more than just hokey, ersatz R&B. Her soul roots run deeper than a simple appreciation of Motown, Stax, King and Kent into the truly obscure gems of Northern Soul and their soaring strings. She assimilated several post-Beatles pop styles into a seamless continuum, including girl group pop and the lighter side of jazz. Her smoky voice and impossible large beehive hairdo crashed onto the scene at just the right moment, when the pre-hippie 1960s had enormous cache.
Whether Mad Men is a commentary on or product of nostalgia matters little. America yearns for a simpler time when alcoholism and light sexual harassment were acceptable. Amy’s beehive hairdo reflects another shadow of the 1960s. Beehives weren’t respectable coifs in the 1960s—they were symbols of sexual availability alongside long, thin cigarettes and winged eyeliner. Winehouse reincarnated the cocktail waitress Don Draper would duck off to a rent-by-the-hour motel with for a quick one after work.
This is her appeal, and indeed the appeal of all “bad girl” pop singers, from the Shangri-Las to Joan Jett. Good girls sing about broken hearts. Bad girls sing about fucking the pain away. Frank, Winehouse’s debut, strikes a contrast with her second and final record, Back to Black. The Winehouse of Frank is the one who wasn’t so heavily tattooed or addicted. This album is the sound of a new relationship, the time when your new lady is putting on her best “Fuck Me Pumps” and urging you to get “In My Bed” seconds after you come through the door. Jazzier and more laidback, on Frank Winehouse says everything that the girl groups of the ’60s were saying, but in far more explicit language.
Meanwhile, Back to Black stands as a one-artist mix tape of songs about heartache and loss for men getting over their lady love. Bracketed by all-too-poignant paeans to drug addiction, the titles easily catch the eye of a gent constructing a bad mood playlist. “You Know I’m No Good” and “Love Is a Losing Game” have the unmistakable air of Scotch being poured endlessly into shot glasses while man-feelings get poured out to an unfortunate barkeep.
Big hair, tattoos, drugs, yes, but above all, Winehouse should be remembered for her voice. Her press clips and polka dot dresses give an air of cool, but her voice turns an otherwise unremarkable pop record like Frank into something noteworthy. No matter what you think about how she lived and died, it is undeniably tragic that her addictions turned a bona fide classic like Back to Black into a suicide note.