Monday, July 25, 2011

Amy Winehouse, R.I.P.

Today my bird flew away
Gone to find her big blue jay
Starlight before she took flight
– “October Song,” Amy Winehouse

“Addiction is not a chemical reaction. Addiction is an experience, one which grows out of an individual’s routinized subjective response to something that has special meaning for him – something, anything, that he finds so safe and reassuring that he cannot be without it… We learn habits of dependency by growing up in a culture which teaches a sense of personal inadequacy, a reliance on external bulwarks, and a preoccupation with the negative or painful rather than the positive or joyous. Addiction is not an abnormality in our society. It is not an aberration from the norm; it is itself the norm.” - Stanton Peele, 1975

“Expecting willpower to do jack for an addict is like saying positive thinking is going to get your beloved paraplegic walking again.” – Facebook posting

“[It was] only a matter of time…” – Janis Winehouse, Amy’s mother, in the Sunday Mirror

      My one time seeing Amy Winehouse perform live was in March of 2007, at the Roxy here in Los Angeles. The hype machine was in full effect, already fueled as much by stories of her battles & lapses with booze & drugs as by the fact of her talent. (Her first and still biggest U.S. chart hit, and the way most Americans were first introduced to her, was the single “Rehab.”) That night she was funny, charming, and in great voice. The crowd was hers from the moment she took the stage, and the night was one of those wonderful meldings of artist and audience, with Amy’s music being the glue holding it all together. Her 2006 sophomore album Back to Black, her first official U.S. release, hadn’t been out that long but the crowd already knew the words to every song and they sang along at maximum volume. Many of them had likely bought the import version of the CD, released well ahead of its arrival in the states. They’d been primed to do so by Frank, her flawed but wonderful 2003 debut album that had won awards, prizes and critical acclaim in the UK but hadn’t gotten a U.S. release. It was a hot import item on these shores, though. With her and her music’s arrival in America, hipsters and hype-men had fresh meat to hawk and consume, but a lot of folks were already well under the sway of the music and the artistry (and artist) behind it.
     Still for all her charm that night, Amy seemed uncomfortable in her own skin. Bone-thin (the naturally sexy, fleshy body she inhabited when she first broke was now emaciated), wearing clothes and shoes that were too large for her, flashing really, really shitty tats over her body, and noticeably missing a tooth, she fidgeted with her clothing and hair, danced her patented herky-jerky, off-the-beat dance (sans irony; she simply couldn’t dance), and took frequent swigs from the massive glass of beer at the foot of the stage. It was obvious that the stage was not her natural element. I suspected that – as winning as she was that night – the booze she was swilling wasn’t just alcoholism at work but a way to help her navigate an aspect of her “artistic calling” that turned the calling into a chore, maybe even ordeal.
       I’ve never seen an artist dash off the stage at the show’s end like she did, never once looking back at her band or the audience, eyes trained hard on the wings as she made her exit. I don’t think it’s excusing either laziness or diva entitlement to mark the difference between someone’s drive and joy in creating (and wanting to share what they’ve created with the world), and noting their deep apprehension and unease around actually performing on a stage. Those are two completely different things. Entirely different skill sets and impulses are at work across that divide, and though they often converge, they sometimes don’t. Simplistic conflation of them (by artists and fans) can lead to expectations and demands beyond those the artist wants or even can meet… at least without “help.”
      Watching Youtube clips of Amy at the start of her career, when her body was voluptuous, her hair long and flowing (and clean), her skin not yet mapped with badly drawn ink, is to see that even when she was in full and even dazzling vocal command, she still only rarely seemed truly at home onstage. Her glorious AOL-Session performance is a notable exception; but that’s just her and her band – still a protective cocoon, if you will.

      Here’s the thing: 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. My writing this isn’t an attempt to excuse or glorify bad behavior or the selfishness of an artist showing up (over and over) too wasted to perform. It’s not meant to “enable.”
      It is an attempt, however, to recognize a broader context of issues (addiction; depression; creativity; the places where they meet) that are deserving of thoughtfulness and some measure of compassion. Immediately following the announcement of her death, witless would-be wits chortled across the blogosphere, “Guess she shoulda gone to rehab / shoulda said yes, yes, yes…” Insufferably sanctimonious folks who don’t really know a thing about addiction (or depression) – but would never miss a chance to wag a finger – started lecturing and moralizing about… that which they know nothing.
      There are a host of issues that Amy sparked conversation or just thought about (I’m not talking about tabloid crap,) and a lot of that is brought up in Prof. Daphne A. Brooks’ controversial but, I feel, worthwhile '08 essay here. I much appreciate Prof. Brooks raising the racial concerns she did in her essay, and though I’m a fan of Amy’s – and Prof. Brooks is not – I think the points raised are valid and shouldn’t just be dismissed, as some have done. She and I simply draw different conclusions about who’s culpable and how for the ways that the politics of race and racial privileging played out in Amy’s career. There was undeniably a Great White Hope/Hype aspect to the way a lot of gatekeepers – music industry types; ahistorical, revisionist or just plain lazy music critics – pushed and sold the late singer/songwriter, and I think the ire should be directed at them, not Amy.
      What I will say is that the sartorial drag she chose to wear (the retro hair and clothing style), the hip-hop swagger that manifested in her lyrics and often in her video persona, as well as the influence of singers whose performing styles she heavily imitated and emulated (Billie, Ella, Sarah, Erykah… and most especially Lauryn) were partly shtick, partly protective armor, and partly just a young woman swimming in cultural currents that spoke to and moved her. She molded and conveyed the influences of iconic Black women singers through affectation of their tones and phrasing while forging her own style. At times that could be cringe-inducing but it was also forgivable because her own talent shone so strongly through. She was clearly working through a process most young artists go through – trying on the signature garb of your heroes as you grow into yourself. Back to Black showed the hard work she’d put in toward synthesis, and not just regurgitation, of those influences. It was far from finished work, but Amy seemed to have abandoned the project of artistic growth and evolution long before she died.
      But I want to talk about the only thing she really owed us – the music – and the ways in which she absolutely delivered. Much has been written about Frank, whose highlights are the withering kiss-off “Stronger Than Me;” the beat-driven girl-meets-boy “You Sent Me Flying,” in which disorientating disappointment supplants the longed for happily-ever-after (“The message was brutal, but the delivery was kind…/ And although my pride’s not easily disturbed / you sent me flying when you kicked me to the curb);” and the magnetic mid-tempo “Know You Now,” a quick-draw dismantling of male ego and posturing in which our heroine unabashedly admits her attraction to the very pose she’s lampooning. The Special Edition of the CD, released a few years ago, contained the bonus cuts “Help Yourself,” “Cherry,” “Brother” and “Mr. Magic,” all of which are as good, if not better, than a lot of what made the final cut. I want to focus on a few tracks to illustrate what pulled me into her camp, which has a lot to do with how strong and lovely her pen game was. (And note must be made of her savvy in picking partners in creative crime; not just producer Mark Ronson, but also the sorely under-rated Salaam Remi, who produced two of Amy’s very best tracks: “Just Friends,” and “Tears Dry on Their Own.”)

“Fuck Me Pumps.” A blistering anti-tribute to plastic – in all senses – women who chase athletes (and other rich men), and fuck with the goal of being wifey’d up and immersed in a world of endless wealth. It’s not an anthem of sisterhood, not an empathetic or sympathetic examination of the pressures on women to conform to crippling terms of beauty, or to notions of womanhood that have them hitch their wagon to (well paid) men in order to be “self-realized.” No, Amy’s approach was much more brusque & scathing, hilarious & truthful: I’m calling these ‘hos out.

“Cherry” is something of a throw-away ditty, except it’s much more. I dig that it’s an ode to female artistry tucked inside Amy’s taunting of a half-ass lover. It’s a love song to her guitar, and Amy has gendered the instrument as female, underscoring the feminine dynamic of her work. The song outlines the ways her guitar feeds her, grants her a voice and the space to express what she otherwise can’t – for a host of reasons – to or with her man. Ultimately, she’s celebrating her own creativity (and therefore her deepest/ truest self) as her greatest companion, the one entity she can fully trust and be herself with– warts, blues, neediness and all.

In one of her biggest fan-favorites, "Stronger Than Me," Amy asks her guy, “Don’t you know you ‘sposed to be the man? / Not pale in comparison to who you think I am…” There’s so much to pull apart in this song, whose basic sentiment is, Dead the sensitive male shit. Man the fuck up… But from the first time I heard it, the lines I quoted above stuck out. They seethe with exasperation at her man’s being daunted by his own perception of her, of his being cowed by the box in which he’s put her. In the song she’s bulldozing his reaction and his filter of perception. But I also take it to mean that he’s intimidated by her real – not imagined – strength of presence and forthrightness. Or maybe it’s just womanhood, period, that flattens him. And she’s over it. But I also love the hypocrisy that’s in play. In refusing to be boxed in by him, she brutally derides him – largely by impugning his sexuality (“I’ve forgotten all of young love’s joy / Feel like a lady and you my lady boy…”) – and demands that he slide himself into the pose of machismo to keep her. It’s the humanness of the double-standard that draws me into the song, the way it reflects something of the way that many of us refuse to be locked into someone else’s perception or stereotype of manhood or womanhood, even as retrograde masculinity or femininity is what we’re most drawn to and demand in a partner; it’s our drug. And when you listen to a lot of Amy’s music, the realization of the costs of this particular kind of “addiction” simmers and spills between her unconsciousness and consciousness.

This performance of “Brother” starts off rocky but Amy self-corrects and kinda gets it back on track. The song itself is now both eery and moving, as she’s chastising her brother and demanding that he take responsibility for his life and stop breaking their mother’s heart. Yeah, for real. Especially poignant lyrics: “Responsibility comes down to you / but how can I expect you to understand when you live life like you’re so run through…” The full lyrics scroll across the screen in this clip, which is worth checking out.
And finally, from the Back to Black CD, there’s:

The David LaChappelle video for “Tears Dry On Their Own,” a sublime dancing-with-tears-in-my-eyes track, seemed a disappointment at first but repeated viewings convinced me how wonderful it is. The clip captures the essence of Amy’s confessional songwriting – her loneliness and isolation, even in a crowd; her status-quo pining for her dependably missing man, with her hitting the pavement to go on a circular and futile hunt for him; the unforced way she is immersed in – but still apart from – freaks and outcasts, folks who may do daily battle with voices (internal, external) that tell them they ain’t shit, and whose defiance of those voices (and attempts to mute them) frequently dovetail into self-destructiveness that is then used by detractors as proof in their argument. In the video, Amy and LaChappelle show her allegiance to and solidarity with those outcasts, but without heavy-handed forcing of the issue. Amy cares not at all if you were born this way or that, and she’s too caught up in her own shit to pen clumsily pandering anthems about you. Fuck if you’re faggot, dyke, trans, cholo, thug, ‘ho, or of whatever race. Are you cool peeps or not? End of discussion. She made her own struggles universally recognizable, using both droll humor and raw poetic honesty; that was what drew her fans to her music, and to her.

My original review of the Roxy concert is here.
Shout out to Sofia Quintero for the Stanton Peele quote above…