Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Amy Winehouse

Maybe she should have gone to Rehab after allIn an age of impossibly bland music, someone coming along who sounds noticeably different is always going to stand out. Consider the Scissor Sisters – nothing that they do is that terribly different from what’s gone before, but their level of brio and enthusiasm in the Coldplay / Travis / Radiohead era of earnest shoe-gazing makes the Sisters a band whom it’s difficult not to like. Sticking video game effects into I Don’t Feel Like Dancin’ – how perfect is that?

And it’s this appreciable level of difference that makes Amy Winehouse special and note-worthy. Ms Winehouse has, in Leonard Cohen’s lovely phrase, been born with the gift of a golden voice. Your faithful quillsman, who hardly ever listens to any music other than classical or Irish traditional any more, having finally choked on surfeit of record company Product, pricked up his ears the first time he saw the video for Rehab while channel surfing, and the chanteuse has remained an object of fascination since.

Rehab is an absolute tour de force. The fabulous, growly, voice of Ms Winehouse herself, rich and resonant. The funky bass and percussion. The marvellous sounding brass, with those fabulous nods to old Motown and Stax and Booker T and the MG’s.

The rest of the album, Back to Black, doesn’t live up to this of course. Ms Winehouse is not Leonard Cohen; in fact, she’s not even Seth Cohen, that vacuous philosophising muppet on the appalling OC. But my God, what a voice, and how well it suits the soul sound. Actual music, by actual musicians. Revolutionary.

Sadly, a little too revolutionary for our friends in the music industry. The given wisdom there is that music or talent isn’t enough, so the record company are playing up Ms Winehouse’s fondness for the drop for all it’s worth. The Back to Black record is being marketed as a chronicle of a broken heart, something similar to a 21st Century version of that awful song about only a woman’s heart possibly being able know this level of misery. Nonsense, of course, and even it was true, Ms Winehouse lacks the writing ability to chronicle it. Anybody buying Back to Black to explore this territory is being sold a pup. Joni Mitchell’s Blue is what they’re looking for, but as far as the music industry is concerned, Joni is yesterday’s news while Amy is what they dream of – fresh Product.

And, in order to keep the profile of their Product sufficiently high, not only does the record industry allow Ms Winehouse to indulge her self-destructive tendencies, they encourage her. Witness Ms Winehouse’s shambolic appearance duetting with Charlotte Church on “Beat It” from some months ago. Whatever else one can say about La Church, she’s been a pro since she was twelve, and she is seriously unimpressed by someone turning up a mess for a gig.

Not that the industry cares. Ms Winehouse is now being flogged around the States, as this informative and rather depressing profile in this morning’s Washington Post reveals. That old lie about destructiveness and creativity going hand in hand is trotted out again, because the record industry flaks know its makes such sulphuric copy. And a lie it is: Shane McGowan wrote A Rainy Night in Soho at the start of his career; ten years of hard living later, the best he could come up with was Paddy Public Enemy No 1, a frankly distressing dirge about Dominic McGlinchey. Says it all, really.

The final paragraphs of that Washington Post interview make for distressing reading, as just how much Ms Winehouse is being manipulated by those whose wages she is effectively paying and whose very employment she is effectively justifying. Because it’s all so fake – Ms Winehouse is marketed as being as street as a manhole, but she is in fact from a comfortable middle-class background, and was bounced out of several private schools in her day. So, instead of being the authentic new voice of 21st Century urban Britain, she is in fact a poor little rich girl gone slightly off the rails.

But what a marvellous voice. A voice so powerful, in fact, it reminds your nostalgic narrator of the great Cerys Matthews of Catatonia. Cerys was marketed in exactly the same way – this tactical marketing rethread doesn’t phase the record industry because they know that as far as the current, 18-23 record buying public are concerned, Catatonia’s International Velvet in 1996 is about as fossilised as Blonde on Blonde in 1966 or Songs for Swingin’ Lovers! in 1956. Cerys doesn’t hit the bottle any more and doesn’t sell any records worth a damn, but she’s healthy and happy and well-adjusted, and maybe that counts for something too. An Spailpin would like to think the two ladies could meet up sometime and compare notes, an event that would no doubt cause great horror and anguish in certain record industry boardrooms. But maybe some things are more important than the dollar. Rock on, Amy – try to stay safe.

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