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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-Scottish 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.