Irony is a Bitter Taskmaster

[Updated] Saturday afternoon, my wife and friends and I heard a great song on BBC 6 and tried to figure out who it was? Adele? Duffy? At the end of the song, the DJ announced it was Amy Winehouse, that she had died, then he played another song. The track was “Tears Dry on Their Own” from Back to Black, and it’s hard not to wonder what would have happened if it had become her signature song instead of “Rehab” or “You Know I’m No Good.” Perhaps she’d never have become as big as briefly was after the release of the album, more akin to Duffy or Adele in America after their first albums, and perhaps she’d have been caricatured slightly less easily. Perhaps she’d have had one less issue on her crowded emotional plate, but who knows?


Whatever, the look, the gallows humor of “Rehab” and the self-aware, self-abusive vamp of “You Know That I’m No Good” created a persona that would have been one-dimensional had it not been for her voice. I’ve just re-listened to the album for the first time in years, and for me it really starts with track six – “Love is a Losing Game” – where instead of a persona, there’s a person. It’s not like her subject matter or self-esteem improves as the album progresses, but her torch songs have more dimensions. The front half of the album is clearly more marketable, but one final, sad component of her years in the spotlight and death is the bitter irony embedded in the songs that introduced her to the world.


Here are a few other remembrances of Winehouse:

Randall Roberts’ at the Los Angeles Times

In an era of manufactured image as perfected by Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, Winehouse resonated particularly because she lived so transparently, from the lyrics she chose to write to the way she casually but confidently phrased them, not to mention the way she conducted herself with her fans and the press. Hers was a blue-collar voice, one that channeled the critic inside all of us that presumes failure, that tells us we’re less than we are, that knows bad stuff is going to happen and we’re foolish to try to stop it.

M.I.A. posted this song, “27,” which is “Dedicated to all my friends that died at 27.”

27 by _M_I_A_

Amanda Petrusich wrote about “The Authenticity Trap” at

Authenticity was an especially dicey thing for Amy Winehouse. Already, she was working within idioms (black American soul, R&B, hip-hop and jazz, with a bit of blues thrown in) that plenty of people feel proprietary about. The story of those genres is often told via hardship: who could possibly be more qualified to sing the blues, after all, than a black man in Mississippi in 1929? Authenticity can be a distracting and belittling narrative — it takes an awful lot more than anguish to be a good blues performer — but our understanding of these traditions is shaped by context. When a supposed outsider tries to appropriate one, it can read, however stupidly, as hubris. On her gutsy 2007 breakthrough “Back to Black,” Winehouse was accompanied by the Dap-Kings, the Daptone Records house band, which typically backs up the powerhouse soul singer Sharon Jones. As a young, white, British woman, Winehouse’s cultural “claim” to this music was dubious — until her personal troubles came into public focus. Addiction is a fundamentally different kind of hardship, but Winehouse’s life wasn’t charmed. She had credibility, suddenly, and that trumped everything else — race, circumstance, origin. She made dozens of unforgivable professional and personal mistakes, but no one could accuse her of being full of shit.

Update 12:41 p.m.
Here’s an excellent, lengthy essay on Winehouse, art and addiction by Ernest Hardy:

We’ve so romanticized the tortured artist, been complicit in turning her/him into a blueprint pose and commodity, that we’ve forgotten there is sometimes painful truth at the root of the cliché: There are artists whose muse and round-the-clock demons really are one and the same. We, the herd of consumers, cheer the bad behavior, eat up the self-destructive actions, nod theatrically (so everyone around us can see) that we identify with the pain, maaaan. But we grow impatient when the artist who’s genuinely fucked up doesn’t act like a mercenary CEO, keeping just inside the lines of marketable debauchery and edible despair. We laugh and mock, made uneasy when it turns out shit is real.