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Web Letter

I want to cast neither stone nor aspersion. At the same time as I am at opposite pole, a fan, and believing Amy amongst the great (not just good) soul singers.

Her voice is unique. Contralto, but with a continuity of melodic line like Billie Holiday's. And, to add to that blender, an Aramaic sense of suspended drama in voicing the story of a song. It's been called a "hip-hop warble": that tremolo she can load at will onto her voicing. That any Arab woman singer would instantly recognize. No accident, I believe, that she has a fierce fan following in Spain. And, as the point: that she melds more vocal traditions than any of us can know.

Past this, her voice rings harmonics clean as a bell. Contralto with surprising range, best appreciated live. As at her concert for Les Eurockeennes de Belfort 2007 found on YouTube via ShootUpTheStation.

Past the phenomenon of her voice are the songs she writes. The best of which, such economical, masterful encapsulations of situation and sentiment as I believe merit inclusion amongst the great soul songs.

I've written an appreciation of three of her songs on my WordPress blog--being a fan, and not the only one. Though I would point not to the total number sold of her record, but that it continues to sell. The one record keeping her label afloat in a sea of declining sales, and demonstrating that however one recognize her, she is not a fad: the engagement to her voice and her songs, by fans, is genuine and lasting.

Meantime, self-destructiveness in artists is as old as that Chinese poet who drowned embracing a full moon reflected on water. And as old, the inevitable backlash: "dead drunk, more like," the cynical retort, since the poet was as notoriously a drunkard. While R&B and soul post a list as long as the proverbial arm. Something, it seems, to the depth of feeling and pure art that this music needs, which practically requires equivalent depth of experience.

Not that what she is passing through is to be taken lightly. A Saturn transit, is what the astrologers claim. When necessity has a hard face, and all excesses are punished. Not to be wished on anyone as one was kind enough to note. And I must remind, when she's only 25.

I have little hope of changing a mind set at opposite pole to mine, but as last point: past your listing all that Amy is appropriating from R&B and soul, there is what she gives back.

Peter Jan Morales

Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Oct 27 2008 - 6:51pm

Web Letter

"Afro-Scottish pop legend Dame Shirley Bassey"? That's a Nation oooops moment, I'm afraid!

Shirley Bassey, from Tiger Bay (the Docks area) of Cardiff, is an Afro-Welsh pop legend, not an Afro-Scots one! Nigerian father and Yorkshire mother, but born and brought up in Cardiff, South Wales!

Ron Webster

London, UK

Sep 22 2008 - 5:11pm

Web Letter

I also teach about African-American history and American popular culture at the college level. I find that Dr. Brooks's approach to these issues is far too common in academia. Black and white Americans have always greatly influenced each others' musical culture. Indeed, the very notion that there is a purely "white" American music and a purely "black" American music is a Jim-Crowish construction that conceals the misegenated nature of American music. The genres of R&B, country, pop and the like are marketing constructs--not sociological reality. According to the author's logic, blacks like Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald should not have sung show tunes because it was an act of cultural theft and appropriation from often Jewish-American songwriters.

Daniel W. Aldridge III

Huntersville, NC

Sep 14 2008 - 8:13am

Web Letter

I get tired of some of Amy's unfortunate acting out from addiction issues (or whatever you call it), and the press "gotcha" aspect. But I find this article overkill almost to the point of slander. I think the writer is really just decrying AW's "unladylike" behavior (acting too much like a guy rapper or something!). Yes, white girls have borrowed/stolen from black singers for decades, and it has often left blacks without the compensation or credit they deserve. But I think, despite the piling on of fairly tenuous historical analogies, Ms. Brooks here really is only just sexist, and much more jealous/bitchy than enlightening.

Edward Goodstein

Atherton, CA

Sep 13 2008 - 12:12pm

Web Letter

Clearly, you are offended by Amy Winehouse, which is certainly anyone's right. She is a little offensive. But I have read your essay twice now to try and find the actual reasons why her art is a "travesty" to you.

All of the best pop music is based on borrowing and freely mixing threads from all the music that has come before and filtering them through one's own consciousness, hopefully in pursuit of finding one's own voice. Sometimes the result is something radically new, and sometimes it only takes a subtle twist to make it your own. (Perhaps the difference between talent and genius.)

That's the creative process, something you do not address at all in your essay. Do you really think that white people have no right to borrow from traditionally black musical styles? Your swipe at Elvis makes me think so, but Elvis created something new, as every good artist--of any ethnic background--does. I also wonder if you think "soul" music is the sole creation of African-Americans. That would come as a surprise to the white musicians who toiled in the Hitsville basement, or down at Muscle Shoals. That's just not how music is made, thank god.

Recorded popular music, going back to the beginning of the twentieth century, in all its myriad arbitrarily assigned "genres," has always relied on the ability of its practioners to mix and match freely to create infinite hybrids. That of course includes black musicians borrowing from traditionally white styles. Who would want to live in a world where artists were regimented into racially assigned categories? And our musical history would be incalculably diminished if that were the case. One could list virtually every performer in the history of recorded music--black, white, Asian, Middle Eastern, Latino, etc.--to illustrate the point.

Amy Winehouse may not be a genius, and she may indeed be a very troubled young women--but she made at least one great record, one that rings true. She turned on the blender, as any artist does, and she found her own voice--a very striking hybrid. I do not see (and you do not explain) how her accomplishment in any way effaces the achievements of black female performers.

Philip Shelley

New York, NY

Sep 13 2008 - 9:34am

Web Letter

This article is such a classic example of the snobbery and resentment so common amongst academics. The idea that Elvis Presley was nothing more than a cynical attempt to exploit Black American music for purely monetary gain is so silly as to defy serious rebuttal. Elvis was passionate about the music he loved, and he performed his version of it beautifully. I suspect that Amy Winehouse is similarly honest in her love of mid-century Black American music. The fact that she is profoundly self-destructive is beside the point.

Personally, I think her music a pale facsimile of what came before. Give me Wilson Pickett and Ray Charles any day, but keep the Amy Winehouse. But perhaps "white hipsters" are onto something. It isn't as if hip hop and R&B are producing anything of real musical value these days, certainly nothing remotely comparable to the music of Motown, Stax, etc. If the natural heirs to such brilliance mostly ignore the wonders of accomplished musicality in their post-modern non-melodic craftings, at least somebody is appreciative of what the rest of us have mostly forgotten in our headlong rush into artificial sounds and mechanical tomfoolery.

The extreme irony of holding up the Supremes, and Motown in general, as exemplars of musical and cultural dignity is astounding. That whole business model was devoted to "cleaning up" Black American music for mainstream White American consumption. And now we are to decry Amy Winehouse repackaging the stuff? Give me a break. Maybe more and more people will return to the music that still matters, the motherload of creativity that black and white artists alike gifted us with not so many years ago. It's high time for a resurgence of quality in popular music. Bitching about one of the more talented artists to emerge in a decade ain't gonna help.

James M. Johnson III

Farmington, GA

Sep 12 2008 - 6:22pm

Web Letter

Amy is a singer.
When she sings, I get sucked in.
I know the critics have to justify
their existence by reading all kinds
of nonsense into her success.
But isn't it all quite silly?
She sings; I like; the end.
If she lives I'll listen;
if she dies I'll listen.
It's her life not mine.
She's the mouth and I'm the ears.
Her life is not a tribute,
her music is.
We are not her judges.
We are just the ears. Listen, or don't.

Howard Mandel

Greentown, PA

Sep 12 2008 - 10:32am

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