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London’s Victoria and Albert Museum is currently paying tribute to the Supremes, the queen mother of all “girl groups,” in a colorful exhibit that celebrates the more-than-passing connections between the Motown trio’s rise to pop prominence and the 1960s struggle for civil rights. Featuring a luminous array of vintage glitter gowns and go-go petal dresses donated by original Supreme Mary Wilson, “The Story of the Supremes” highlights the link between the groundbreaking group’s consistent execution of refined elegance and what you might call the civil right to black glamour that was dominant for much of twentieth-century black music history.
English pop phenom and London native Amy Winehouse is a singer who owes as much to the sound and look of the Supremes, the Ronettes and other pioneering girl groups as she does to the vocal stylings of bygone jazz and R&B greats like Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan and Afro-Welsh pop legend Dame Shirley Bassey. On second thought, “owing” is putting it nicely. Winehouse’s Tower of Pisa beehive, satin gowns and little black gloves invoke the styles of everyone from Lena Horne to the Shirelles, and her frothy brew of Motown girl-group melodies crossed with Etta James-era rock and blues riffs and silky-smooth 1970s soul arrangements are textbook BET lifetime achievement material. Just about the only thing Winehouse hasn’t repackaged from the black music archives is the one thing she could use: a lesson from Motown’s legendary etiquette coach Maxine Powell, who taught her charges to exude grace and a classic Hollywood glow. The mannered, elegant look that Winehouse pairs with a shot glass was, for Diana Ross, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard, about more than Cleopatra eyeliner. It was about affirming black dignity and humanity amid the battle to end American apartheid.
Winehouse’s infamous image, as anyone who has looked on the Internet lately knows, is less about dignity and more about a march toward Sid Vicious-style self-immolation–a No Future punk-degeneration dreamgirl chic, with a dash of Funny Girl Babs thrown in for good measure. What makes this act slightly less than amusing is the fact that Winehouse has built her stardom on recycling the looks and sounds–the Wurlitzer, hand claps and upright bass–of Freedom Ride-era pop music to sell her tale of rapidly unfolding decline. It’s one thing in our celebreality culture of scandals and bad behavior to garner attention by singing a pop anthem about resisting rehab. It’s quite another to set these finely crafted tales from the “gritty” English ‘hood to doo-wop hopefulness and buoyant, “Dancing in the Streets” percussive melodies that recall the upbeat tenor of King-era activism. This summer, the dissonance grew deafening when Winehouse was caught on video singing slurs about blacks and Asians–not to mention gays and disabled folk–to the tune of “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” while hanging out in what looked like a crack den. A few weeks later, after issuing the requisite public apology, she slurred her way through the lead vocals of the Special AKA’s New Wave radio classic “Free Nelson Mandela” in the presence of the man himself, on the occasion of his ninetieth-birthday celebration in Hyde Park.
It’s been a whirlwind year and a half for the 25-year-old Winehouse, whose second album, Back to Black, has sold 10 million copies worldwide and who, in February, won five Grammys, including Best New Artist, Record of the Year and Song of the Year. But for every polite critic who cites her work as another example of cultural “borrowing,” there are others who would argue that she is another version of Colonel Tom Parker’s white chocolate dream–Elvis reincarnated as a white woman who can “sing like a Negress.” And while some might get caught up in debating whether Winehouse is merely a hack black-music ventriloquist, the most troubling aspect of her routine is rarely discussed. The real travesty of Winehouse’s work is the way that her retro-soul draws from and yet effaces those black women–from Diana Ross to Aretha Franklin to Tina Turner–whose experiences helped to ignite the rock and soul revolution of our contemporary era.
Black women are everywhere and nowhere in Winehouse’s work. Their extraordinary craft as virtuosic vocalists is the pulse of Back to Black, an album on which Winehouse mixes and matches the vocalizing of 1940s jazz divas and 1990s neo-soul queens in equal measure. Piling on a motley array of personas, she summons the elegance of Etta “At Last” James alongside roughneck, round-the-way allusions to pub crawls and Brixton nightlife, as well as standard pop women’s melancholic confessionals about the evils of “stupid men.” What holds it all together is her slinky contralto and shrewd ability to cut and mix ’60s R&B and Ronnie Spector Wall of Sound “blues pop” vocals with the ghostly remnants of hip-hop neo-soul’s last great hope, Lauryn Hill. Who needs black female singers in the flesh when Winehouse can crank out their sound at the drop of a hat?
Winehouse wouldn’t be anywhere, though, without a few crackerjack handlers. Key among them is hipster-producer DJ Mark Ronson, the central creative engine behind the Black album concept and the figure who united Winehouse and the Dap-Kings. Considered by some listeners to be the heartbeat of the current retro-soul revival, Brooklyn’s Dap-Kings emerged in 2000 as the house band at Daptone Records with an analog sound in an increasingly digital world. Heavy on brass and a crisp, early funk-and-soul percussive beat, the band developed a nostalgia-hungry indie following by reproducing note for note the compositional style of a bygone era. (A word of advice to hipster strivers: leapfrogging backward over hip-hop will always get you cred.) It was music that resuscitated the sound as well as the aura of black culture circa 1964–yet it was played by a predominantly white group of musicians.
Winehouse is something of a departure for the Dap-Kings, who are regularly fronted by 52-year-old African-American vocalist Sharon Jones, perhaps the true heir apparent to James and Ruth Brown alike. With a deeper and more powerful range than Winehouse, Jones has recorded three full-length albums with the Dap-Kings, none of which have moved anywhere near the number of units that Winehouse has. It would be easy to suggest that Winehouse “hijacked” Jones’s retro-soul soundtrack, but Winehouse doesn’t sound all that much like Jones, whose raw power and propulsive energy is more Godfather of Soul and less girl-group demure. Far removed from Jones’s infectious spirit, Winehouse’s pseudo-inebriated singing is more like a caricature of Amos ‘n’ Andy meets one of Billie Holiday on heroin.
Last March, New Yorker pop critic Sasha Frere-Jones wrote that Winehouse’s “inflections and phonemes don’t add up to any known style.” Her “mush-mouthed” phrasings on tracks such as “You Know I’m No Good” are, he wrote, her “real innovation,” a “Winehouse signature” that stresses linguistic distortion and sounds heavy on the wine. This, to some, is the sonic allure of Amy Winehouse: her absolutely inscrutable delivery seemingly sets her apart from the legions of white artists who’ve hopped on the Don Cornelius soul train to find their niche.
Let’s be real. These “mush-mouthed” phrasings are anything but new. Winehouse is drawing on a known style that’s a hundred years old, rooted in a tradition of female minstrelsy. Think of the oft-overlooked blues recording pioneer Mamie Smith, the artist who, with songwriter Perry Bradford, laid down the first-ever blues recording by an African-American vocalist, “Crazy Blues,” in 1920. Mamie Smith is hardly an iconic figure like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. Her rep as “a vaudeville chanteuse” rather than a juke-joint vet all but guarantees her exclusion from the traditional blues canon. But it’s this background that enabled Smith to draw on a range of styles crafted in part from watching and listening to white female performers like Sophie Tucker and, eventually, Mae West–white women who, as theater scholar Jayna Brown has written, often learned to “perform blackness” from the women who worked for them. It goes to show that there were plenty of women, black and white, who benefited from the minstrel craze.
So Frere-Jones is right on one count: Winehouse is indeed creating a pastiche of sounds. But this pastiche is a homage to old-school musical traditions, gone but not forgotten. Her rich combination of split vocal stylings recalls Mamie Smith’s sly and oscillating phrasings–moving from Northeastern vaudeville intonations in one note to early Southern blues in the next. She’s as much a modern-day Billie Holiday as a contemporary Sophie Tucker, the self-proclaimed “Last of the Red Hot Mamas” and an original Jewish “coon-shouter” who borrowed liberally from the singing style of blues pioneer Alberta Hunter and others. Smith and Tucker were women of the theater who dressed elegantly, fronted brass bands and performed lavish numbers. Though a century removed from Winehouse, these women clearly set a precedent for her high drama on and off the stage.
What, then, is real pop “innovation”? Winehouse has been lauded for essentially throwing Holiday along with Foster Brooks, Louis Armstrong, Wesley Willis, Megan Mullally’s Karen on Will and Grace, Moms Mabley and Courtney Love into a blender and pressing pulse. And her ability to bring that tricked-out mix of characters to life has made for some eyebrow-raising, highly orchestrated stage shows. Curious to many is Winehouse’s use of black male backup dancers and singers, brothers with skinny ties, black mod suits and hats who hustle to choreographed moves, conjuring up images of a bygone era of black male “coolness”: Belafonte and Poitier, Nkrumah and Lumumba. Putting this “coolness” in the service of backing up a “ruint” white retro femme figure seems laughable in one sense and egregiously patronizing in another. In either case this sight-gag gimmick is perhaps the key to the obsessions of Back to Black.
Whether letting her man know that she’d “rather be at home with Ray” (Charles) than in rehab; hatin’ on a suitor for having gotten in the way of her and her “man, Mr. Jones” (a k a the New York rapper Nas, Nasir Jones); spitting remorse for having “missed the Slick Rick gig”; or, perhaps most cryptically, telling a confidant that “‘side from Sammy, you’re my best black Jew,” Winehouse may be belting it out like a black woman, but her references and posturings are so, so def, pop-ya-collar, hip-hop machismo, all the way down to her weirdly inverted “you my nigga” bonding reference to Sammy Davis Jr. Witness too how, in her videos, Winehouse rehearses the lowdown “junkie jazz musician” caricature, idling in the bar long after closing time when he should be home with his woman.
To borrow a question from Winehouse herself, “what kind of fuckery is this?” 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. She’s a “ride or die chick” from another era, the Jewish English lass who’s rolling with the boys, who morphs into the J. Hova gangsta driving the Jag herself. All hail the retro-soul Jolson in a dress who, it seems, is really our first hip-hop drag king, a thug for life indeed, and who clearly, oh, so clearly, these days, seems frighteningly ready to die.