Saturday, July 12, 2008

Rebel, Rebel: Notes on Amy Winehouse

Well, she's going to die, isn't she?

I mean, I've tried to put a positive spin on it. I've reminded everyone I know that Amy Winehouse is only 24 years old and doing what a lot of 24 years olds do. I've pointed out that she is reconciled with her family, who seem to be taking a more active role in her life. I've certainly reminded myself that Bowie nearly died, that Lou Reed could have died, that Iggy Pop should, by all means, be dead now; and they all lived through it. And some addicts are like William S. Burroughs, who was exemplary: stayed in good health, kept control of a sharp mind, lived a quiet life; all while addicted to heroin. But, let's face it- William S. Burroughs was a superior being who would have been exemplary at anything he did. Most of us aren't.

A whole lot of drug addicts don't make it through. And Amy Winehouse certainly seems to be lacking the self-consciousness that artists like Bowie nearly snuffed out through drugs, but never entirely surrendered. It's strange too, because one of the reasons that she's such a great artist is the way that she self-mythologizes, creating a fictional world out of Motown records and pulp novel imagery; ultimately, recreating her life as a crime novel moll. But, it's as if she doesn't realize that it's fictional. A bit like Bowie during his, frankly terrifying, Thin White Duke phase.

And, make no mistake: she is a great artist. Her lyrics are witty, vulgar, romantic, and work on several levels at once; now, they're jokey pop references, and in the next line they're soaring romanticism. I think what attracts me to the music is how it frequently goes from being theatrical to being dramatic, which are not the same things. At moments, she is arch, but then suddenly she's achingly melodramatic. But it's never insincere.
The passion of those songs comes from a different time in music: the songs recall the lo-fi operas of the Shangri-Las, as opposed to the big budget soulless special effects of contemporary "hit music radio". When you listen to most pop music these days, from Fergie to Pink to Jay-Z, what you notice is how childishly self-absorbed it is; every other song is a paeon to the singer's own sex appeal. With Amy Winehouse, as retro and corny as it migh seem, there really is something revelatory about listening to someone sing about how she would die, without dying, for love. Most pop singers don't even seem to care about the other person, aside from wanting to bump uglies. So a line like "He walks away/ The sun goes down", is both classically beautiful, and revolutionary. Add that to really good arrangement and production- as opposed to pro tools, bass thumping, bullshit- and a voice that bleeds heartache, and you've got great pop art.

But, there are two of her, aren't there? There's Amy Winehouse, the artist; and then there's Amy Winehouse, the celebrity. Those of us who are excited by the artist- excited that such a thing could even arise in nature at this point- just don't understand that the celebrity is going to kill herself, and that it's practically part of her contract by now. Conversely, the people who are excited about celebrity don't understand what the big deal is about her- after all, she's not that attractive! Just like Anna Nicole Smith, Amy Winehouse has to die for those people. They expect it from her. Ironically, it's the prevalence of just this flattened affect that makes her music so exciting.

And, she's going to die for both groups of admirers. Those of us who like her art and couldn't give a fig about her figure or her fame don't get off the hook here either. Artists are, as a general rule, screwed up people who aren't so happy in the world: this is probably why they create such elaborate fictional worlds. But Amy Winehouse's art is about transmutating what appears to be a doomed and fucked-up life into gorgeous melodrama. And, if her life gets better, there's the chance that the artist will cease to exist. It's hard to imagine a well-adjusted Van Gogh or an elderly Kurt Cobain. Here, both the celebrity-watchers and the pop art-devotees are feeding off of her misery. So, we're all to blame.

But, sincerely, I hope she tells us all to piss off.


The Pagan Temple said...

Good analysis. I think what might save her, if that is possible, is if somebody takes her under his wing, somebody that has been through all of this, and can guide her through the haze and into the light in a way that her art won't be sacrificed, and possibly might even be enhanced. I'm thinking here of somebody like Bowie, or maybe even Jimmy Page or Keith Richards.

I can almost visualize her in some remote castle in the Scottish highlands, spending months getting herself together and possibly emerging with a work that will go down as one of the greatest of all time.

I can almost hear her vocals in combination with Page's guitar virtuosity as I type this.

Rufus said...

This is sort of what I've been hoping for. Prince wants to record with her and he's already flown her out to Minneapolis to make plans. I'd like to see him put her and her husband in the Prince Rehab Center, while also recording a kick ass rock record.

The Pagan Temple said...

Her and her husband strikes me as classic co-enablers. If both don't want to change, probably neither will.

Rufus said...

Yeah, that's the problem. She's got good reason to be scared, given her recent health news. But, he's probably not as worried, in spite of being about to get out of jail. So, I'm guessing he's going to bring her back down.

Ah well. It's like Sid and Nancy all over again.