One Art


Amy Winehouse (1983-2011)

"I'm my own worst critic, and if I don't pull off what I think I wanted to do in my head, then I won't be a happy girl."

"The world is complete without us. Intolerable fact. To which the poet responds by rebelling, wanting to prove otherwise." These words of Louise Glück aptly express what Amy Winehouse did with her restless, brief life. But from her chronic dispute with life an astonishing (albeit concise) musical oeuvre was born. In a sense the singer-songwriter survived because the authentic voice of her songs captured her true self.

When people asked Richard Rorty, "What is the future of philosophy?" he used to answer, "The future is as contingent as the future of the novel: both depend entirely on what the next genius to come down the road will do." He then used to add that nobody would have predicted Dostoevsky or Hegel, Proust or Heidegger, Kafka or Wittgenstein. In this sense, Winehouse was an original mind and an artist of her own life. If aesthetic enhancement should be the aim of human existence (Oscar Wilde), then Winehouse was a true believer of Wilde's dictum; she simply invented her bleeding soul.

Amy Jade Winehouse was born to a Jewish family in Southgate, London, on September 14, 1983. She died on July 23, 2011, in Camden, London. She grew up listening to the jazz albums that her cab driver father owned. He and her pharmacist mother later divorced.

Winehouse attended the Sylvia Young Theater School and the BRIT School for Performing Arts and Technology. She showed an early talent for the stage. Her tastes in music were eclectic. She cherished her father's records, but she also listened to hip-hop. At age 10 Winehouse and a friend formed a rap group.

In 2003, Winehouse released her debut album, "Frank." Influenced by jazz, it established her as a rising star in the U.K. But it was "Back to Black" - released in Britain in late 2006 and in the United States the next year - that made her a worldwide sensation. Her crafty renditions were compared to those of greats such as Billie Holliday, Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan. The album was an elegant, modernized version of Sixties rhythm and blues, and was loved by critics. Entertainment Weekly unflinchingly declared that "Back to Black" "will hold up as one of the great breakthrough CDs of our time," and added: "When this lady sings about love, she means every word." The worldwide sale figures of the two albums exceeded 12 million copies.

"Back to Black"'s first track, "Rehab," became Winehouse's autograph song: "I don't never want to drink again, / I just, ohh I just need a friend / ... / They tried to make me go to rehab, I said no no no." It was her first top 10 hit, remaining in the charts for 57 weeks. In an interview with The Los Angeles Times, Winehouse made clear how an excruciating breakup had contributed to the songs on "Back to Black":

"I didn't want to just wake up drinking, and crying, and listening to the Shangri-Las, and go to sleep, and wake up drinking, and listening to the Shangri-Las. So I turned it into songs, and that's how I got through it."

Winehouse won the 2007 Brit award for best female artist. In addition, she picked up Q Magazine's best album title, and was nominated for that year's Mercury prize. Perhaps the climax of Winehouse's career was the 2008 (and incidentally, the 50th) Grammy awards. She was nominated for six prizes and got five, including best new artist. The same year The Daily Mail reported that when he was asked which modern singers he rated, Keith Richards declared flat out: "There's only one person. That girl Amy."

Following Winehouse's death, sales of "Back to Black" vastly increased. The album climbed to number one on the iTunes charts in just about every country. On August 25, 2011, the Official Charts Company stated that it was now the best-selling album in the U.K. in the 21st century, with sales of 3.26 million.

Winehouse was a social provocateur, and her passions and carefree manners sometimes seemed to tinker with, if not transform, our way of life. She'll hold a permanent place in cultural memory similar to those held by Edith Piaf, Elvis Presley, Kurt Cobain, et al. Her songwriting - remember John Ruskin's succinct definition: "lyric poetry is the expression by the poet of his own feelings" - proves that great poetry doesn't always have to be controlled. Maybe that explains why a few years ago Cambridge University students were asked, in a final-year exam paper for the course "Practical Criticism," to compare the following lyrics of Winehouse with a poem by Sir Walter Raleigh (circa 1552-1618).

Love Is a Losing Game

For you I was a flame,
Love is a losing game,
Five story fire as you came,
Love is a losing game.

One I wish I never played,
Oh what a mess we made,
And now the final frame,
Love is a losing game,

Played out by the band,
Love is a losing hand,
More than I could stand,
Love is a losing hand,

Self professed, profound,
'til the tips were down,
Though you're a gambling man,
Love is a losing hand,