Earlier this week I watched ‘Amy’, the documentary released about Amy Winehouse in 2015. It was both brilliant but also difficult to watch. Over the course of the two hour programme you follow Amy from her exciting musical beginnings through to the more difficult ends. It is, of course, an ultimately sad story, but she had an incredible gift, not only in her voice but in her songwriting. She also had a real passion for music. She wasn’t in it for the celebrity status; she was in it because she loved to sing and write. Amy used music to express herself, and it truly gave something back to her. Having suffered from depression at many points in her life, it was the irreplaceable outlet by which she was able to overcome many emotional struggles.
‘Frank’ was Amy’s first album, released in the early 2000s and, to be frank (sorry for that cheap attempt at comedy), it’s a brilliant piece of work. When it comes to Jazz, no one’s opinion is more valuable than Tony Bennett, and his praise of Amy is completely warranted. Her voice stood out massively from any pop artists at the time, and it’s even more impressive when you realise she didn’t have much (if any) intense musical tuition. She was truly gifted. Given musical trends of the time it was typically an impossible feat for Jazz musicians to get any real mainstream foothold, so it’s a testament to Amy’s talent that she was able to have such a huge impact on popular music with her second album ‘Back to Black’.
Something that stood out for me once I started listening to ‘Frank’ a little deeper was Amy’s lyrical style. She had a big personality, and was great at getting that across in her songs. The album is honestly funny when you listen to what she has to say. Maybe not in the ‘lol’ sense, but it’s refreshingly witty in comparison to a lot of artists who have flatter lyrics nowadays. Just look at the track ‘Fuck Me Pumps’. She doesn’t dance around the topic, but goes all in with a satire on gold-digging promiscuous women. She has her opinions, she’s not afraid to state them and she makes you laugh as she does. This gives a feeling of authenticity to her music. She doesn’t put on a front or simply say what people want to hear, she is just being herself. The song ‘Stronger Than Me’ is a great example of this as well. It’s about her relationship with an ex, which didn’t work out because he wasn’t man enough for her. She refers to him as her ‘lady boy’. You might not always like what she said (I doubt he did), but personally I like to see an artists true personality coming across in their music, as opposed to trying to please everyone with generic lyrics that don’t actually mean anything.
The music itself is, again, brilliant. Her ability to achieve such mainstream popularity is, I think, down to how well she was able to fuse Swing Jazz style music with R&B and Pop. It’s quite a unique style which transforms very ‘good’ music (in the more snobby sense of the word) into something more in line with popular music trends of the time. It stood out from the crowd in a way that was still very accessible. One of my favourite musical moments of the entire album is the sample used on ‘Help Yourself’. She takes an already fantastic muted horn lick from ‘You Won’t Be Satisfied (Until You Break My Heart)’ by Doris Day, alters it rhythmically and then uses it as a key motif in her song. This new application of rhythm to Jazz harmony is, I think, what makes it so much more popular with the masses. The album features frequent use of drum machines and is mostly very upbeat, and that’s what people like nowadays: they want music that they can move to, because it makes them feel good.
As I said at the start, Amy’s story is a sad one, and I mean that in the sense that it actually makes me feel a heavy sense of loss. Her life was an eye-opening insight into the effects of celebrity, and it shows that it really can be a curse rather than a blessing. The public love you when you’re doing well, but they can turn on you in a matter of days, and often when they do, they don’t realise that despite their distance from the icon that they criticise, their words can have a very real and scary effect. Amy Winehouse was one of the best musicians of recent years, and I can only imagine the great things she would have gone on to achieve had her life not been cut short.