15.4.09

Amy Winehouse

About a week ago, I was casually absorbing the second half of the Queens of British Pop documentary. Not a lot was actually absorbed. Apart from the extraordinary Annie Lennox, the incomparable Kate Bush, and the subject of this here keyboard-bashing exercise, I didn't much care for the selection of artists the program covered. I mean, Geri Halliwell? Really?

Anyway, the documentary was followed by a BBC recording of an Amy Winehouse concert, which I stuck with out of inertia and faint feeling of dread. For you see, I have sampled bits of the Winehouse Show before, and it was a somewhat uncomfortable experience. You may know what I'm talking about. First of all: visuals. Amy Winehouse is four years older than me. And yet she sports the look of a 46-year-old drag queen, complete with pin-up tattoos on the arms. This is not aided by her awkward, stumbling movements on stage - those skinny legs in those high heels struggling to support the giant beehive hairdo. Then there's the vocal performance. On record, Winehouse manages to contain her warbling within the parameters of beat and rhythm. A soul singer should never be entirely confined by her environment. Winehouse certainly isn't. Nevertheless, in the studio her vocal is focused enough to make the punchy pop of 'Fuck Me Pumps' work. Notably, that track - a standout on her debut album - is not on the set-list. Live, Winehouse's words are loosened, stretched and distorted over the efficient foundations provided by her backing band. Through all the noise, their meaning becomes difficult to decipher. I found this frustrating.

But not on that night a week ago. Nothing had changed with the Winehouse Show. Beehive was in place, the whine as distinctive as ever. But this time I finally got it. Around that time, I had been listening to, and loving, Van Morrison's first album Astral Weeks. His vocal was strikingly similar to Winehouse's - the emotional wail stretching out syllables, with little heed paid to the rhythm thumping beneath. But Morrison is riding some transcendental Romantic high - nature, romance, campfires and off into the mystic. Winehouse slurs her words because she's drunk. And she's drunk because she's fucked up (her words, not mine). During the concert, she tells the audience (in her surprising Soufgate accent) about the very painful nature of her songs, and how it was weird to belt them out at a roomful of strangers. She's completely right. It's indecent. Distorting her lyrics may be her way of dealing with this uncomfortable, embarrassing situation.

But there's more to it than that. During the rubbish documentary, Winehouse's father was interviewed, although his daughter was not. He revealed something quite vital. Winehouse was raised on a diet of jazz and Frank Sinatra. Her debut album - Frank - is named in honour of him. Her father described how Sinatra performed his songs with an air of sincerity that made you believe he was really feeling what the words in the songs described. Winehouse is doing the same thing. But there is a crucial difference. Sinatra was an actor, his performance was an act. With Winehouse it's real. Her lyrics are hers. They directly express what she herself feels. And those feelings, as previously stated, are very private and painful.

Winehouse can't do this kind of honesty in concert. She faces away from, or stares through, her audience. She doesn't perform for them. Instead, singing transports her back to the situations and emotions that inspired her songs. And she relives them for our entertainment. On 'Rehab' she stands straight-backed behind the mic stand, arm on hip, glaring at some invisible accuser (her father?). On 'Back To Black' she's crouched knees to chin, staring away at the rafters, visibly sinking into shame and despair. She runs through sexy, innocent, damaged, strong, beautiful, ugly, one after another, with breaks where she retreats back into the present, again becoming stand-offish and shy. She is coquettish one moment, before rolling her eyes the next. Her body language maps out the emotional terrain she is traversing. We can't see what she is seeing. All we get are hints.

Her vocal goes through the same process. Her emotional state and the memories she relives, lubricated by liquor, impacts and distorts her singing. The bleats, whines and warbles communicate everything you need to know with a power that words cannot encapsulate. They become unnecessary. Instead we get the noises of the human animal stripped bare, expressing those primal emotions that contain the essence of who we are - pain, fear, loss, anger, regret, joy. The polite applause at the end of each rendition did no justice to what I was witnessing.

Unlike before, I found her performance electrifying. I was watching with rapt attention as she shifted from one state to the next, trying to glean an insight into the inner life that was playing out before her eyes. The cheery reggae number that closed the show felt incongruous with the emotional self-punishment that came before. Winehouse shouldn't do parties. She's the aging barroom entertainer in Altman's Short Cuts, and the only reaction she deserves, apart from sympathetic embarrassment, is awed silence.

2 comments:

  1. i <3 amy

    true: fuck me pumps should have been included.

    and yeah, her performance antics can get a little on the "what is she thinking?" side.

    but i'm all raves about this queen.

    ^_^

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  2. True that. Along with Lily Allen, pretty much the best British female popstar around at the moment, even with the tabloid antics. Amazingly, the documentary chose Leona Lewis over Ms. Allen for the new Queen of today. Huh? How does that work?

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