Amy Winehouse is the new black, in more ways than one.
Each season long-nailed vampires in the fashion industry spend inordinate amounts of money and
time convincing the frail and fickle amongst the clothes buying public that, for example, a
sickly looking brown is the ‘new black’.
There’s a certain amount of this type of repackaging going on with Winehouse – trying to
convince us that this deep-voiced and frequently-foul-mouthed chanteuse is both
innovative, fashionable, and at the same time re-assuringly classic. On closer examination,
though, only one of the above judgements rings true. Amy Winehouse is certainly this season’s
musical flavour, staggering from Mercury prize nominations to rehab in a manner certain to keep
her on the radio for some time to come.
Now, you might think from this that I don’t like back to black – on the contrary, it’s
an album that has more than its fair share of charms. Rehab, while overplayed and
overloaded with significance thanks to Winehouse’s very public disintegration, is a damn good
song – it’s loaded with tension, it swings with space, and Winehouse’s voice makes you doubt very
much that anyone else on the planet could sing this song after her.
Throughout, the musicianship is slick – perhaps too slick. And perhaps it’s here that the problem lies. Though Winehouse is a powderkeg in her personal life, on record there’s very little that will surprise you. The tunes are all good, and you could do far worse than have this on your i-pod, but the moments where you have to instantly replay a song because it’s startling are few and far between. There are childish pleasures, like Winehouse singing ‘what kind of fucker is this’ against a smooth ’50s doowop tune – but slipping out a casual obscenity against a formal background has all the aesthetic risk of letting one rip in public – i.e next to none.
The comparisons are usually jazz and R n’B related, helped by name-checking Ray Charles and Donnie Hathaway (and a heavy emphasis in all press about Winehouse’s Jazz playing Uncles), but a different comparison has struck me after repeated plays. Winehouse sits bookended by her fellow Mercury Prize nominees Portishead and Dido. She manages to combine all the potential of one, with the blandness of the other (check out Tears dry on their own or He can only hold her for songs that decide it’s better to fade away than burn out).
Too much time has been spent, it seems to me, to positioning Winehouse perfectly to sell to key markets – the music is reassuring for the middle class, relying heavily on Jazz and Soul. Winehouse herself can ‘hang’ with anybody – she’s white with a ‘black’ voice; she’s east-London and Jewish; she’s retro with a beehive, and modern enough to overdose with Pete Doherty. She started her career being managed by Simon Fuller’s managemtne company – which should say it all. All angles are covered, and she obviously sells loads as a result. But, if she manages to get the space and health to make a third album, let’s hope that more is left to chance.