This month, The Nation added to what is fast becoming its own distinct subgenre within cultural criticism—the Amy Winehouse Appraisal. (See also Salon and The New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones for recent additions.) Because she is a) a woman, b) a white Jewish woman from London, c) working within the black musical tradition, and d) a very public drug addict, Winehouse touches on a whole host of sensitive issues that can turn appreciating her music into a cozy stroll through a cultural minefield. Winehouse and her music is suffused with the anxiety of influence (of the narcotic variety in Winehouse’s case), and journalists can’t stay way.
Predictably, The Nation’s Daphne Brooks has beef with all the queasy racial politics and cultural “borrowing” at the core of Winehouse’s shtick—an argument that’s certainly been made before, and can be made about other white British musicians from Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page to Mike Skinner and DJ Mark Ronson (the producer behind Winehouse’s Back to Black). Though here, Brooks has a little more fun with it. Not only does Winehouse yearn for black men—both romantically and artistically—she literally wants to be one. “Well beyond merely singing, as a white woman, about her desire for black men, Winehouse, in what is perhaps her real innovation, has created a record about a white woman wanting to be a black man–and an imaginary one at that, stitched together from hip-hop and bebop and juke-joint mythologies.” Winehouse is our first “hip-hop drag king”—a fact about which Brooks feels a mix of respect and derision.
Her derision, it seems, stems mainly from the short-shrift Winehouse’s musical gumbo pays to black singers like Lauryn Hill, Etta James, and the little-known blues singer Mamie Smith. “The real travesty of Winehouse’s work is the way that her retro-soul draws from and yet effaces those black women… whose experiences helped to ignite the rock and soul revolution of our contemporary era,” she writes. “Black women are everywhere and nowhere in Winehouse’s work.” On top of this, Winehouse has the gall to reject the “mannered, elegant look” of Motown’s female stars in favor of her infamous brain-damaged slouch. In other words, Winehouse isn’t black enough. Instead, Brooks writes, Winehouse’s image is “more about a march toward Sid Vicious-style self-immolation—a No Future punk-degeneration dreamgirl chic…” If Winehouse just cleaned up she might be worthy of her mighty influences.
Brooks is right to unpack Winehouse’s motly persona and right to worry over how liberally it borrows from the otherness it glorifies. But we think it’s time to quit all this hand-wringing over her bad behavior. Winehouse has had to deal with a media barrage over her narcotics abuses that female stars in the past with equally dubious chemical dependencies never did. If Janis Joplin—the most well-known white female blues singer of her day—had to face the maelstrom of tabloids that Winehouse stares down (and admittedly courts) every week, we wonder if Pearl would have landed so comfortably in the rock ’n’ roll canon after her overdose in 1970. We are simply much more willing acknowledge that the well-publicized drug habits of male rock stars black and white—from Ray Charles and Keith Richards to Pete Doherty and Lil’ Wayne—are part and parcel of their musical persona, that they needn’t be dropped to save their users’ careers. It is, in fact, precisely because Winehouse is one of such a paltry number of female musicians receiving the serious attention they deserve that we hold her to a higher standard.
Let us be clear: Amy Winehouse should go to rehab. But she owes that only to herself, not to any pre-conceived notion of what a successful female soul-singer should be.