Amy Winehouse: Got Soul? Hell Yeah, Sister!

Amy Winehouse is at the top of her game. In the past several months, the gritty and outspoken young woman from north London with a voice somewhere between Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holliday has become the musical success story of 2007. Her second album Back to Black has sold five million copies worldwide, soared up the charts on both sides of the pond, and produced three hit singles (with a fourth on the way). And just this past summer, she has graced the cover of the two biggest music magazines in the US; Rolling Stone, and Spin, which had the guts to call her “the dangerous new queen of soul.”

Mere hype? Absolutely not. Because plainly stated, Amy Winehouse is one of the best thing to happen to women in pop music in a decade.

This itself is a bold statement. And normally there is something about the hyping of a white woman as the queen of a black music-genre that puts this writer’s quills on end. But there is no denying that Ms. Winehouse stands out from the typical female pop singer, white or black. For those of us frustrated with the reign of the pre-packaged plastic doll in music, it’s a relief to see a female artist who allows herself that most verboten of indulgences: being human.

Part of it is her choice in sound. Jazz, soul, Motown, a bit of reggae and ska, all find their way into her songs. This isn’t the music of the sterile studio that crawls underneath stale lyrics like a plastic ivy plant. These are the songs of the sweaty dance halls and gin soaked R&B joints that should have never been pushed to the margins the way they have.

Her image and voice might be part of it too. Ms. Winehouse is hardly the vapid sex object with the frail nightingale-ish voice we’ve become used to. She’s tattooed. She wears whatever she feels like (including the bee-hive). And she is a powerhouse! Her voice has an unusual depth and an undeniable strength. She sings from her gut, from her heart, and from someplace very,
very real.

But these are only part of a bigger picture. Ms. Winehouse’s voice, her image, her catalog and performances, are all part of the most genuine, heart-on-the-sleeve material to come from any woman in the pop-music mainstream in a long time. Perhaps that’s because Ms. Winehouse (gasp!) writes her own songs.

Not only that, but she’s amazingly skilled at it, especially for someone of only 23 years. Heartbreak, lust, and even addiction are all things that she can sing about with a rare believability. “Tears Dry on Their Own,” set to be released on August 13th, is a perfect showcase. Its sound pulls heavily from “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” and Ms. Winehouse not only recaptures that song’s classic strut-and-sway, she makes it her own with a cocky swagger that has become trademark. Her lyrics, however, seem to pull a reversal on the song, as she speaks of being trapped in an endless cycle of bad lovers. That she can juxtapose one’s own destructive cycle with such defiantly strong music conjures up images of suviving despite all odds, a feeling that seems to be forgotten in most “neo-soul.”

Her prior single, “Back to Black” features a piano and string backing reminiscent of Solid Gold at its best. Ms. Winehouse’s smoky voice is just enough to hold the listener’s heart in painful limbo as her lover returns to his old flame. The poetically blunt lyrics hit the listener in the gut: “He
left no time to regret / kept his dick wet with his same old safe bet.” But if this almost vulgar honesty shocks then the chorus — which soldiers through the pain of heartbreak with noble grace — gives you no choice but to be drawn into her world of simultaneous anger and sadness:

“We only said good-bye with words
I’ve died a hundred times
You go back to her
And I go back to black.”

If you’re not moved by this beautiful song, check your damn pulse.

There is a dark side to all this. It seems impossible that anyone could write such nuanced and vivid songs without demons, and Ms. Winehouse has her
fair share. Thanks to the spinelessness of the British tabloids, we know
that her struggle with the drink has been more than just a minor nuisance.
After her first record, even her label tried to intervene. But rather than
hide that from the world, she turned it into her biggest hit yet; the Motown
infused, attitude filled “Rehab. The message was clear, to the execs, the
agents, and the tabloids: “screw you, and by the way, screw you again.”

It’s impressive that Ms. Winehouse has no problem speaking her mind in both her music and otherwise. While she may share the petite, skinny build of the pop-istas, she knows that it comes at a heavy price. She has admitted that she used to suffer from eating disorders, the big taboo that most divas dare not speak of. After describing her past disorder as “a little bit of
anorexia, a little bit of bulimia,” she elaborated “I’m not totally OK now, but I don’t think ANY woman is.” And in a society where we are expected to deal with the shit of life with a grin on our face, she has also admitted to a history of bipolar disorder.

Mark Ronson, legendary DJ and producer of half of Back to Black said that “Amy is bringing a rebellious rock n’ roll spirit back to popular music… Those groups from the Sixties like the Shangri-Las had that kind of attitude: young girls from Queens in motorcycle jackets. Amy looks fucking cool, and she’s brutally honest in her songs. It’s been so long since anybody in the pop world has come out and admitted their flaws, because everyone’s trying so hard to project perfection. But Amy will say, like, ‘Yeah, I got drunk and fell down. So what?'”

What her recent success tells us is that most people are sick of “perfection.” They want artists they can identify with. Ms. Winehouse is a deep, complex, often flawed person. As we all are. Not only does she admit it, she puts every inch of it in her songs. How brave, how personal, and how rare that is. Perhaps the reason she’s being called the new queen of soul is because she actually HAS soul.

Here’s to you Ms. Winehouse. May your reign be long and prosperous.

Alexander Billet, a music journalist and solidarity activist in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies. He is a frequent contributor to, Dissident Voice, ZNet and the Electronic Intifada. He has also appeared in, Z Magazine, New Politics and the International Socialist Review. His first book, "Sounds of Liberation: Music In the Age of Crisis and Resistance," is expected out in the fall; you can donate to the project on Kickstarter. He can be reached at Read other articles by Alexander.

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  1. Maria Casotti said on June 2nd, 2009 at 12:30pm #

    Thank you Mr. Billet, for the words you wrote about Amy Winehouse!

    You saved me lots of work trying to explain to my friends and family why I just felt in love with her too.
    Here the history;
    Yesterday I went to the Library across the street get some books and DVDS/CDs – they are free – and I found Amy’s “Back to Black” available so I brought it home.
    Nor that I expected good music, or my friend, we were just curious why people talk so much about this singer.

    My friend even said something about her strangle with addictions and “predictable” /possible death – I believe lots of people expect the same.

    But for the ones that know her, as me now, we would feel sadness, a sense of connection, and – for sure – try to send beyond the regular paths, one little feather of hope over her shoulders.
    You are not alone!

    Many good singers went through life and died and just after their death people would say:” wow, she was a genius, a goddess of this and that”.
    I feel somehow a deep sadness in my soul for those great artists the world lost for their loneness and incomprehension surrounding them.

    Maybe your words will help somehow, maybe my small contribution too; I don’t want cross my arms and just let it go…
    She has an amazing voice, strong personality, and, copying your own words:” it’s a relief to see a female artist who allows herself that most verboten of indulgences: being human”.

    Great artist, much younger than me, making me dance and feel free.
    What else one can love more?

    Amy Winehouse -You Know I’m No Good

    Amy Winehouse Back to Black