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Beyond Retro: The Artistry of Amy Winehouse

In the week since the death of English singer Amy Winehouse much newsprint, or the virtual equivalent, has been spent on her struggles with substance abuse. The analysis of her music, such as it is, has largely centred on her trademark song “Rehab” and its relationship to the addiction (or addiction de-tox) that may have claimed the singer at the early age of 27. But as magnificent a moment as “Rehab” is, such analysis is a reductive take on a far more interesting, albeit brief, body of artistic work.

There’s a moment in the videoclip for Amy Winehouse’s 2004 single “F*ck Me Pumps” where she sings in front of a nightclub called “Beyond Retro.” That, as much as anything, appeared to be something of a mission statement from the singer. Though her reference points ranged freely from jazz greats like Billie Holiday to Motown and Stax soul, Winehouse worked with producers Salaam Remi (the Fugees, Ms Dynamite) and Mark Ronson to produce at-once modern and retro-sounding soul music.

Retro has itself been a discussion of cultural criticism since at least 1984, the year after Amy Winehouse’s birth, when literary theorist Fredric Jameson introduced the idea of pastiche and the death of originality in postmodernism. But while this obsessive interest in the ephemera of the past was noted by Jameson in works such as Star Wars and American Graffiti, pop music paired this desire with a relentless futuristic invention for at least another decade and a half.

It wasn’t until this last decade that it really caught up (that is to say, slowed down) with film, a movement that music critic Simon Reynolds has recently termed “retromania,” in his book of the same name. Retromania is, he says:

a history of the Noughties as a “like name, like nature” decade where “nought” happened: there was a bustle of micro-genres, a steady turnover of new artists, but no major new movements in music on a par with punk, hip hop, or rave. Instead, all the real innovative energy was in the way musical data was distributed, stored, shared, archived.

Reynolds argues that the self-revolutionising musical innovation that marked the second half of the twentieth century is largely exhausted, that artists are now primarily in thrall to the past.  This is the musical environment in which Amy Winehouse was birthed, thrived and then flailed about in–and it is one in which the dead-end kitsch of celebrity tabloid “journalism” and reality television were the truly dominant aesthetic formations of the time, not any particular musical trend. It is that disenchanted tabloid world, in many ways, which is the subject of Amy Winehouse’s art.

Where her followers (*cough Adele) are content to inanely mimic the soul and jazz traditions she took her cue from, Winehouse herself was inspired to innovate lyrically, tapping into an authentic and contemporary form of disaffection. In songs like “F*ck Me Pumps,” “Take the Box,” and, yes, “Rehab” her lyrics documented, dramatised and ironised the banality of the fake scandals of the reality-sphere. Understanding intimately the petty dramas of the nightclub regular or the Moschino-bra-ed ex-girlfriend, her razor sharp wit and keening voice cut through the noise to give us its repressed emotional content. By turns wry and knowing and emotional, she sounded like she’d seen it all. And when she wailed like she was in pain, you felt the pain.

But like every subtle body of work, Winehouse-the-public-figure inevitably became caught up in the morass of mediocrity her music transcended. Mocking her addictions, her distinctive bee-hived look, her art was demeaned as just another celebrity car-crash sideshow, with the brittle defiance of “Rehab” becoming itself a grim form of public slumming in addiction. This reached its apotheosis in the grotesque cover on Glee as a choreographed uptempo dance high school music number. “Fun.”

When she occasionally did give in entirely to retromania, overwhelmed by her influences as in the horrid “October Song” on Frank (“she’s reborn/like Sarah Vaughn) the results were as forgettable as those of her peers. Back on Black‘s re-jigged “Me and Mr Jones” skated right on this edge, saved only by her foul mouth and savage tone.

But at her best, Amy Winehouse achieved something that few if any artists achieve–the ability to be both contemporary and timeless, to produce art that was memorable, distinctive, and innovative. Steeped in the musical sounds of the past, she was always far more than the sum of her influences.  She didn’t need to die to be remembered, for her work had already ensured that she would be, and it is a tragedy that she is not here today to add to it.

Front page photo: Amy Winehouse at Bowery Ballroom, March 2007 by Daniel Arnold, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.