The Historical Significance and Racial Undertones Behind the Music

Rae Long
Professor Jack Hamilton
AMST 3559-002
10 December 2014
The Historical Significance and Racial Undertones Behind the Music of Amy Winehouse
Amy Winehouse is an artist who despite having an incredibly brief career managed to
spark controversy as well as inspire countless well-known artists. While she only released two
albums in her lifetime, the impact she had on popular music was quite remarkable. With her
vocals drawing comparisons to the likes of Billie Holliday and Bessie Smith and a disheveled yet
vintage style that is reminiscent of girl groups of the 1960s, Winehouse has inspired a plethora of
responses as to how her music both supports and challenges the racial components of R&B, jazz
and hip-hop, all of which she draws upon in her music. After being exposed to countless jazz and
hip-hop musicians in her youth, it is undeniable that Winehouse directly draws inspiration from
these genres, but what is less obvious is how Winehouse’s sonic and stylistic transformations,
taken directly from multiple generations of black musicians, complicate and challenge what it
means to be a white, contemporary soul singer.
After she is introduced by Jonathan Ross, host of a British talk show, Amy Winehouse
confidently strides onto the set, fresh faced and almost unrecognizable to those who have come
to know her through the tabloids. It is 2004 and Amy is 20 years old. Her trademark beehive
hairstyle is nowhere to be seen; her heavy eye makeup is significantly tamer and her skin is free
from the many tattoos that would soon cover her body. She wears a colorful dress and large pink
earrings that give off a retro air without being contrived. Her brazen attitude reads as charming
rather than disconcerting. When Ross asks if her management--the same company behind British
pop groups like S Club 7--have tried to mold her into something that she’s not, she quips, “Yeah
one of them tried to mold me into a big triangle shape and I went, ‘no!’” But most importantly,
she looks healthy (“Amy Winehouse-Jonathan Ross 2004).
Amy is on the show to promote her debut album, Frank, which happens to be the name of
the ex boyfriend to which the record is dedicated to. Of the album, Winehouse claims, “I
wouldn’t call a lot of the people that are doing jazz, ‘jazz singers,’ you what I mean? My album’s
a kind of straight jazz hip-hop cross; there is no blues or folk” (“Amy Winehouse-Jonathan Ross
2004”). And Winehouse is true to word. The album contains a 20 second long intro of her
scatting along to an electric bass line, blending the new and the old. Songs like “Stronger Than
Me” and “Fuck Me Pumps” have distinct hip-hop instrumentals complete with steady drum
machine beats, but in the bridge of “Stronger Than Me”, a trumpet solo gently erupts to bring
home the cross of jazz that Winehouse proudly proclaims of the album. However, on tracks like
“Know You Now,” there are definite hints of rhythm and blues with background harmonies that
are reminiscent of the work of groups like TLC (Winehouse).
Fast forward three short years in 2007 and Amy is sitting down with MTV News. This is
the Amy Winehouse the public has come to know well. She is slouched over, looks disheveled,
her heavy eye makeup and ratty beehive hairdo in full force and her heavily tattooed arms are at
her side. Her small frame appears to have diminished significantly since the Jonathan Ross
interview; she’s not quite sickly, but it is clear something has caused such weight loss and that is
not lost on anyone who knows of Winehouse’s antics. Between answering the questions of the
young and earnest interviewer, she chews and smacks on bubblegum loudly. She barely makes
eye contact with him and frequently looks down: it is clear she has no interest in being there. The
interviewer asks her, “You’ve defied convention not just with your sound, but with your look.
How important is image to you?” Barely letting him finish, Winehouse rebuts, “Umm, I’m not
really fuss. I’m really lucky I got to make the kind of album I wanted to make. That’s pretty
much it. The rest of it, I tell everyone to ‘piss off’ so doesn’t really matter I suppose” (“Long
Amy Winehouse Interview”).
This stark transformation is only part of the complexities that begin to define what makes
Winehouse’s career so beautifully tragic. At the same time, her famed dependency on drugs and
alcohol--which would ultimately lead to her untimely death--and the antics that ensued,
overshadowed the incredible historical significance and racial undertones behind her music. In
order to fully understand the way Winehouse, a white Jewish singer from London, complicates
the racial stereotypes in jazz, R&B and hip-hop, we must understand a little bit more about the
woman herself.
Amy Winehouse was born on September 13th, 1983 and grew up in the Southgate area of
northern London. Her mother and father are a pharmacist and taxi-driver respectively, but
Winehouse was exposed to an incredible amount of music in her youth, most notably jazz. Many
of her family members were jazz musicians themselves or involved in jazz music in some way.
While her parents introduced her to the greats of the genre such as Dinah Washington and Ella
Fitzgerald, Winehouse found herself drawn to hip-hop and R&B girl groups like TLC and SaltN-Pepa during her adolescent years. After being expelled from Sylvia Young Theatre School,
her friend Tyler James, also a singer, gave a demo tape of Winehouse’s to his A&R
representative, which led to a record deal with Island Records with whom she released Frank.
The album was a collaboration with noted hip-hop producer Salaam Remi who she would also
work with on Back to Black (Corder).
Following the release of Frank, the accolades for her musicianship seemed to be just as
frequent as the tabloid stories outlining her escapades. Winehouse was known for performing
drunk or high both for TV and live appearances. After her management company suggested that
she check herself into a rehabilitation center, Winehouse left them and recalled the experience in
penning her hit song “Rehab” which would become the lead single on her second album Back to
Black. DJ and producer Mark Ronson joined Remi in the production of the album, which
resulted in a departure from the jazz sounds of Frank and crossed into the realm of soul and even
rock and roll. Back to Black won Winehouse numerous awards including five Grammys and put
her name on the lips of many big names in the business (Corder).
Back to Black is an undeniably remarkable piece of music and one that has acquired a
tremendous amount of praise but also criticism. Criticism does not necessarily mean that of the
quality of the music itself, but as to how the style is reminiscent of multiple types of music that
are traditionally “black.” As a result, Winehouse’s performance style, appearance and
songwriting have caused numerous scholars and critics to raise questions as to whether her music
is exploitative or paying homage to the artists with which these genres originated.
In a review of Back to Black from 2007, Jon Pareles of The New York Times calls
Winehouse a “tease” for the reason that she makes vintage inspired music and yet has no
connection to it. He cites a performance of hers at the Highline Ballroom where she seemed to be
only partially committed to the music (Pareles). In a video recording of that performance of
“Rehab” which he references, Winehouse, dressed in a leopard print dress in her full retro getup,
barely moves apart from awkwardly swaying side to side, a stark contrast to the lively backup
dancers and band playing behind her. Furthermore, it is worlds apart from Winehouse singing
along to her own guitar accompaniment on the “I Heard Love Is Blind” performance on Friday
Night with Jonathan Ross (Amy Winehouse-Jonathan Ross-2004). There are also moments
where it seems Winehouse is struggling to remember the words to her song and it seems she may
be under the influence of alcohol. The whole performance is painfully ironic as she slurs whilst
singing, “I won’t go, go, go” (“Amy Winehouse-Rehab-Highline Ballroom”).
Pareles delves further into his review by disclaiming that British soul artists will always
be removed from the African-American blues singers that established the genre, but he makes
the claim that Winehouse’s music is “a vintage style for her, a retro choice” (Pareles).
Furthermore, Pareles articulates that the type of R&B Winehouse sings is something that has
been picked apart by hip-hop and that while Winehouse’s voice is undeniably evocative of
singers like Dinah Washington and Martha Reeves, she lacks the focus that these singers
possessed. However, he does indicate that the hip-hop influences both in her attitude and music
could introduce a new era of soul in the 21st century, but her lack of passion in this particular
performance suggests otherwise which is why he has dubbed her a “tease” (Pareles).
Shortly following Winehouse’s death on July 23, 2011, Bill Wyman of Slate explains
how her music provided feelings of “neo-jazz on some tracks” and “retro soul on others” all
whilst staying in touch with the passion of the girl groups of the 1960s. At the same time, similar
to what Pareles outlined in his review, Winehouse was able to bring her music “down to earth
with the petulance, grittiness, and self indulgence of hip-hop” (Wyman).
What both Wyman and Pareles communicate about Winehouse’s music is that she
wanted the audience to sense some sort of familiarity, but she also wanted to lay everything out
on the table, which would either shock, disgust or fascinate people. Either way, she probably
didn’t care. This is most apparent in “Back to Black” which opens with bold piano chords that
are reminiscent of the “jaunty heyday of the Motown years” but the listener is greeted by the
frank lyrics which Winehouse croons seductively: “He left no time to regret, kept his dick wet
with his same old safe bet” (Wyman, Winehouse). This song is haunting and nostalgic and deals
with the immense pain that accompanies a broken heart all while keeping in tune with
Winehouse’s clear love of jazz and soul.
When new and talented artists come on the scene, there is no doubt that they’ll be
compared to those in their same vein and that is certainly the case for Amy Winehouse. It must
be noted, however, the comparisons which are drawn to Winehouse have strong historical and
racial implications, not just by way of her sound but also her look. What is even more astounding
are the cross-generational references that have been made in relation to Winehouse. As Daphne
Brooks puts it, Winehouse “engages in a kind of cross-generic ‘mumbo-jumbo’ that draws from
phrasings and soundscapes across multiple eras, vocally lifting and looping intonations culled
from Dinah Washington’s ‘This Bitter Earth,’ The Ronettes’ ‘Be My Baby,’ and Lauryn Hill’s ‘I
Used to Love Him’” (Brooks 40). Brooks is right to reference these particular songs because the
resemblances to Winehouse are frighteningly uncanny: she matches the soulful tone of
Washington; she belts like The Ronettes and possesses the sassy and unapologetic attitude of
Hill. Not only do all of these artists span various decades, but they are also all African-American.
This suggests that perhaps Amy Winehouse’s music challenges that her sounds cannot simply be
restricted to “black” musicians.
Perhaps people make all sorts of comparisons to Winehouse because they do not know
how to reconcile what she represents, if anything at all. In Brooks’ words Winehouse sounds like
“a vintage Motown artist but [looks] and [behaves] more like a social miscreant” (43). She holds
all the sophisticated talent that is associated with rhythm and blues, yet her actions and
appearance carry all the weight of a rebellious punk rocker. As the interviewer from MTV News
said, Amy “defied convention” and as a result, listeners and critics alike have to make sense of it
in order to come to terms with what she epitomizes.
One could say that just because Winehouse sounds like these artists doesn’t necessarily
mean anything, but that would be a blissfully ignorant statement. Based on Winehouse’s
childhood and teen influences of jazz and hip-hop and her rapid transformation both physically
and sonically, it is challenging to determine whether Winehouse is consciously making herself a
caricature of the women of 1960’s Motown acts or rather paying homage to them. Brooks would
suggest that by combining a number of genres, looks and even personalities, Winehouse
challenges the “crude transparency of her routine” (44). As a result, Winehouse has become a
quasi minstrel performer of the 21st century. As seen in the Highline Ballroom performance,
many of the musicians and back up singers are black and as they flank her, her voice becomes
similar to blackface of generations past since she seems to be unable to take herself seriously
enough to put her full effort into the song.
That being said, much of this image and performance aesthetic can be attributed to others
who had a significant influence on the music Winehouse released, and none more so than Mark
Ronson. Not only was Ronson one of the chief forces behind the concept of Back to Black, but
he also brought Winehouse together with Brooklyn based band The Dap-Kings who are featured
on about half of the album’s songs, most notably “Rehab” and “You Know I’m No Good.” The
Dap-Kings are considered to be at the center of the funk and soul revival and are known for
bringing nostalgia to the forefront of their sound, not unlike what Winehouse did. Many saw this
collaboration as a slight seeing as the band is usually fronted by African-American vocalist
Sharon Jones. This “hijacking” of the Dap-Kings drew similarities to the cultural appropriation
of rock and roll during Elvis’ heyday (Brooks 46).
Many praise Winehouse for the way she was able to manipulate and stylize her sound
with slurs and grittiness, but this was hardly unprecedented. Many female African-American
artists have combined different kinds of racial styles and incorporated aural mimicry into their
music. Artists like Mamie Smith, who was the first singer to ever record a blues vocal, laid the
foundation for other female vocalists such as Bessie Smith and Hattie McDaniel to pave the way
for soul singers of the 20th century (Brooks 47). It is important to note that these artists engaged
in racial mimicry in order to understand that what Amy Winehouse did with her music is not so
extraordinary nor is it necessarily offensive. To be clearer, women, especially black women,
have never been accused of blackface because, well, that just wouldn’t make much sense. But in
a way it does. Time and time again, white rock and roll musicians have been glorified for taking
traditionally black music and “revolutionizing” it for the masses so that the white audiencess
may become more familiar with it. But this evolution of minstrelsy leading up to contemporary
music has been a long tradition entrenched in both white and black performers who complicate
gender and racial based characteristics of the blues within their music. That is why Amy
Winehouse’s music is not necessarily out of the ordinary; it is merely a continuation of a
tradition that has remained in motion for the past century (Brooks 48-49).
Amy Winehouse could therefore easily be categorized as one of the countless artists
attempting to appropriate black culture through music, but this would not be telling the whole
story. Winehouse’s music, like most artists, does not just speak to one thing or idea. Her
culturally ambiguous repertoire attempts to cover up the historical complexities of the genres to
which she draws inspiration from. That being said, the very fact that she is a white, British
performer invading the space of black soul music suggests that there is an established prohibition
of white artists participating in the genre (Brooks 50). Back to Black clearly explores blackness
and implies a kind of genuine curiosity of what it is like to be black. She combines modern hiphop rebellion with the female pioneers of early blues music to “assert her own performative
agency” (Brooks 54).
Given all of the cultural signifiers within her voice, musical influences, collaborations
and even fashion aesthetic, it is clear that Amy Winehouse’s music is a contemporary example of
the dichotomy between “white” and “black” music. Whether this complex historical and racial
commentary was an intentional objective of Winehouse’s from the beginning or perpetrated by
producers and managers she worked with, one thing is for sure: her music defied conventions of
what it means to be a white female singer in the world of contemporary music and her legacy,
will remain even more romanticized because of her early death, will remain a catalyst for
discourse on how race defines sound and vice versa.
Long 10
Works Cited
Amy Winehouse. Back to Black. Universal/Universal Republic, 2006. CD
Amy Winehouse. Frank. Island, 2003. CD
"Amy Winehouse - Back To Black (Live Belgrade 18-06-2011 Drunk or Stoned), RIP 23-072011." YouTube. YouTube, 23 July 2011. Web. 07 Dec. 2014.
"Amy Winehouse - Jonathan Ross 2004 HQ (I Heard Love Is Blind + Interview)." YouTube.
YouTube, 17 Sept. 2011. Web. 06 Dec. 2014.
"Amy Winehouse - Rehab - Highline Ballroom New York 9th May 2007."YouTube. YouTube,
16 Dec. 2012. Web. 10 Dec. 2014.
Brooks, Daphne A. "“This Voice Which Is Not One”: Amy Winehouse Sings the Ballad of Sonic
Blue(s)face Culture." Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 20.1 (2010):
37-60. Web. 2 Dec. 2014.
Corder, Cyril. "Amy Winehouse-Biography." All Music. All Music, n.d. Web. 9 Dec. 2014.
Pareles, Jon. "Disillusioned Diva With Glimmers of Soul." The New York Times. The New York
Times, 09 May 2007. Web. 08 Dec. 2014.
Wyman, Bill. "Amy Winehouse: Why Her Music Will Last." Slate Magazine. Slate, 26 July
2011. Web. 07 Dec. 2014.