Amy Winehouse: Songstress of pain

 

By Walt Mueller

 

The writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us that “there’s nothing new under the sun.” In more recent times, pop culture historians have said almost the same thing another way—that “what goes around comes around.” When styles and sounds are recycled years after they first dropped onto the landscape of adolescent culture, both of these sayings are proven true. While it isn’t at all unusual to stumble upon a pop culture “do-over,” the nuances of the replication and the replicator can be quite startling.

 

Eight years into the new millennium, the most recent pop music “goes around” is a petite little Brit who’s channeling the distinctive look and sounds of ’60s girl groups ala The Ronettes, Poodle skirts, heavy eyeliner and beehive hairdos. But true to the rapid changes that have taken place in youth culture since Ronnie Spector and her Ronettes topped the charts with “Be My Baby,” this 2008 version is not a member of any of your mother’s ’60’s girl groups. If Ronnie Spector had any tattoos, we didn’t know about them. If she was struggling with disordered eating or addictions, it wasn’t at all obvious. And if she sported scars on her arms from self-abuse, nobody saw them. That’s not the case with Amy Winehouse, an extremely talented and terribly tortured young 24-year-old singer who’s taken the musical world by storm. Seventeen years after Nirvana captured the pain of a generation with “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Winehouse has—by default—assumed the role of today’s Kurt Cobain by putting to music what far too many children, teens and young adults are experiencing and feeling.

 

Relatively unknown outside of her native Britain just a little over one year ago, Amy Winehouse has run away from the musical pack to win five Grammys and sell millions of records worldwide. Because of her popularity and message, Winehouse is a voice and personality who deserves our attention. Her music, message and persona serve as both a map for the emerging generations and a mirror of today’s youth culture. But why? What is it about Amy Winehouse that has fostered her meteoric rise to popularity? What’s the worldview and message she communicates to her growing audience of young fans? Is there anything we can learn from her growing influence and rapidly expanding following? Is there anything she can teach us about the realities, cares and concerns of young people growing up and moving into adulthood in these rapidly changing and unique times? And, does Amy Winehouse issue any necessary challenges or helpful insights to those of us who long to see children, teens and young adults move from brokenness into spiritual wholeness?

 

The Amy Winehouse story

Born in Southgate, London, on September 14, 1983, Amy Jade Winehouse was raised in a music-loving Jewish family with a pedigree that includes many jazz artists. Amy’s cab-driving father Mitchell and pharmacist mother Janis had an infectious love for music that was passed on to Amy and her older brother Alex. It’s not surprising that jazz was the music of choice that filled the Winehouse home as the family listened together to the likes of Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington. But music wasn’t the only childhood influence that would shape Amy’s life and music. When she was nine years old, her parents divorced—and her life began to fall apart.

 

One year later Amy would begin her musical career when she and a 10-year-old girlfriend started their own little rap group they dubbed “Sweet ‘n’ Sour.” Modeled after their female musical heroes “Salt ‘n’ Pepa” and Lisa Left-Eye Lopes of the group TLC, Winehouse was beginning her journey to success and stardom. She borrowed her brother’s guitar and soon learned how to play. At the age of 13 she bought her own. One year later, she began to write her own music and started experimenting with drugs. It was also at the age of 14 that she enrolled in the prestigious Sylvia Young Theatre School and began formal drama training. Along with some other Sylvia Young students, she appeared on a 1997 episode of the British comedy sketch show, The Fast Show. Two years later, her signature individualism and independent spirit reared its head—and it wouldn’t be the last time. She pierced her own nose, an act that didn’t sit well with school administrators at Sylvia Young. That act, coupled with the fact that Winehouse wasn’t working hard enough in class, resulted in her dismissal from Sylvia Young.

 

Over the course of the next few years she continued to write music and pursued a variety of jobs. She sang in a jazz band and worked for a while as a show business journalist for the World Entertainment News Network. Comfortable in front of cameras or a crowd, Winehouse was increasingly uncomfortable with herself as she fought the demons of her own existence—something that was only going to get worse as time went on.

 

Eventually Winehouse’s boyfriend, Tyler James (a singer himself) sent her demo tape to Island/Universal Records. The company signed Winehouse and sent her on tour. In 2003 she released her debut album, Frank, in her native U.K. It was after this that Winehouse started listening heavily to the ’50s and ’60s girl groups that influenced her sound and appearance. Her second album, Back to Black, was released in the U.K. in 2006.

 

Winehouse’s musical career and life exploded in 2007. On the musical side, Back to Black was released stateside in March. Winehouse’s growing popularity and sales success led to the U.S. release of her debut album Frank in November of last year. Not only was Winehouse a commercial hit, but critics were starting to take notice. In February of this year, Winehouse scored five Grammy wins in one night, becoming the first British singer (male or female) and female singer (from anywhere!) ever to do so.

 

But even though Winehouse was reaching the pinnacle musically, her life was hitting rock bottom. Self-described as a “reckless” person, her destructive lifestyle of drug and alcohol addiction was taking a serious toll. In addition, Winehouse has admittedly struggled with self-injury, depression and eating disorders. Her husband, Blake Fielder-Civil—who she married on May 18, 2007—also has struggled deeply with substance abuse and addiction. During the latter half of the year, her meteoric rise to musical fame was eclipsed by the pair’s addiction and legal troubles. During an interview with Spin magazine, Winehouse carved Blake’s name into her stomach with a shard of mirror. Video footage emerged of Winehouse smoking a crack pipe.  In August she was hospitalized after a three-day drug binge and almost died. Five days later she went into rehab, but left after 48 hours. Three days later she went back into rehab, but took off after three days. During the same month, Winehouse and Fielder-Civil emerged from their London hotel room bloodied and bruised from fighting with each other. Their behavior was so over the top that both of their families got involved, expressing public concern over their physical and emotional health, as well as their marriage.

 

In October, the pair was arrested in Norway for possession of cannabis, and later fined and released. Later that month, health and substance abuse issues led her record company to cancel her tour. In November, Fielder-Civil and four other men were arrested and charged with obstruction of justice in relation to a June 2007 assault on a bartender. In December, a disoriented and stumbling Winehouse emerged from her house and wandered around in bare feet, a bra and jeans. Later that month she was arrested for trying to bribe and fix her husband’s trial.

 

Finally, on January 24 of this year, Winehouse entered rehab and stayed. By the time she performed from London during the Grammys, Winehouse’s parents and brother were encouraged by her progress, appearance and demeanor. Not the same, however, could be said for Fielder-Civil. Just a few days later, he overdosed on heroin in prison and had to be hospitalized.

 

Both professionally and personally, Amy Winehouse is a woman of distinctive style and individualism. In spite of her self-destructive lifestyle, she avoids organized religion, instead depending on fate and Karma. She believes relationships are where happiness is found, evidence of which can be seen in her long-term desire to be a wife who has lots of kids. She says her motto is this: “Be yourself. Don’t be afraid to be different.”

 

Amy Winehouse’s music

How do you describe a musician who’s difficult to put into a box? Amy Winehouse is a very, very unique addition to the popular music scene. Critics and reviewers find her and her music to be filled with contradictions. “At once innocent and sleazy” (Guardian, 10/17/2003). “A filthy-mouthed, down-to-earth diva” (New Statesman, 12/11/2006). “A perfect storm of sex kitten, raw talent and poor impulse control” (Newsweek, 3/12/2007). “Sounds Afro-American: is British-Jewish. Looks sexy: won’t play up to it. Is young: sounds old. Sings sophisticated: talks rough. Musically mellow: lyrically nasty” (The Observer, 2/1/2004).

 

Listening to the music of Amy Winehouse yields a combination of English soul, jazz, R&B, hip-hop and ’60s Motown influences. Her voice has been compared to those of Sarah Vaughan, Macy Gray, Nina Simone, Lauryn Hill and Erika Badu. Still, she has her own unique and easily identifiable vocal sound.

 

Her voice is laid over a variety of instrumental sounds and genres, typically spanning the spectrum anywhere from a small jazz combo, to more orchestrated music. Usually, when a jazz guitar is in the mix, Winehouse is the one playing it. In combination, the instrumentals and her voice provide a bed for lyrics that never fail to be extremely personal and very intense. All in all, Amy Winehouse is so musically and personally unique that she can’t help but be noticed in a music industry that has relied so long on formulas that she’s a breath—albeit somewhat depressing at times—of fresh air.

 

Frank (released in the U.K. 10/20/2003, in the U.S. 11/20/2007). Recorded when she was only 19 years old, Amy Winehouse’s debut album is a blend of jazz and hip-hop that did very well in its native Britain, garnering Mercury and Brit Awards nominations. Described as “earthy, warm, lived-in and astonishingly versatile” (The Times), the album is largely focused on her relationship with her ex-boyfriend. With the exception of two songs, every cut was co-written by Winehouse.

 

The disc’s “Intro” serves to establish Winehouse and her style as something new on the popular music landscape. The short few-second piece features Winehouse scatting over a nifty little bit of jazz guitar.

 

“Stronger Than Me” is the first single release off the disc and won Winehouse a Novello Award for “Best Contemporary Song.” In the song, Winehouse investigates male and female roles and how those should be played out in relationships. Addressing a former boyfriend, she rides him for being weak. She desires a much stronger leading man who is able to comfort her: “Don’t you know you’re supposed to be the man?/Not pale in comparison to who you think I am … I always have to comfort you when I’m there/But that’s what I need you to do.” What results are some typically pointed Winehouse responses: “I’ve forgotten all of young love’s joy/Feel like a lady, but you my lady boy … I always have to comfort you every day/But that’s what I need you to do/ Are you gay? … You should be stronger than me.”

 

She sends a message to the guy who left her in “You Sent Me Flying.” She trusted him and loved him. Now she sings about how it’s felt and what it’s done to her: “So now I feel so small discovering you knew/How much more torture would you have to put me through?” She wonders about how long he was going to string her out, making her hold on, all the while knowing it was over: “And although my pride’s not easily disturbed/You sent me flying when you kicked me to the curb.” In the long run, the break-up has helped her and she finds something good in it: “It serves to condition me and smoothen my kinks.”

 

The ex-boyfriend is replaced by an inanimate object in “Cherry.” She tells her former lover that he’s been replaced by her new best friend—a new guitar. She compares the ex’s lack of conviction to Cherry’s unwavering devotion (something Winehouse desperately longs for): “Her name is Cherry/We just met/But already she knows me better than you … Maybe we could talk about things if you were made of wood and strings … and when I’m lonely, Cherry’s there.”

 

In “Know You Now” she expresses her desire to get beneath the surface of who he seems to be to who he really is: “I gotta know you now/We may never meet again.” She’s hesitant about being with him, and hesitant to be without him: “I’m not ruling you out/I’m just in doubt/As to what you say you’re all about.”

 

Winehouse offers her critique of twenty-something girls who hang out in bars waiting to be picked up in the song “F___ Me Pumps.” (See lyrics at right.) Winehouse rightly attacks these girls and the shallowness of their bar-hopping, she sees the emptiness of one-night stands, she exposes the depths some women go to and the meaninglessness of this kind of lifestyle. The song also offers insight into our current culture of sexual relationships where some males are intent on objectifying and using females.

 

Ironically, what follows is a song about a one-night stand. In “I Heard Love Is Blind,” Winehouse is speaking to her boyfriend, justifying having sex with another man. Her list of justifications include fantasizing during sex that the other man was her boyfriend (“This ain’t infidelity/It’s not cheating/You were on my mind”), that she was too drunk to know better, that she was in need of a man’s touch (“You wouldn’t want me to be lonely”), and he looked like her boyfriend (“I couldn’t resist him/His eyes were like yours/His hair was exactly your shade of brown/He’s just not as tall/But I couldn’t tell/It was dark and I was lying down.”). In the end, she simply says, “He means nothing to me/I can’t even remember his name.” The song offers insight into loneliness, the longing for intimacy and the lengths people will go to in order to find it.

 

“Moody’s Mood For Love” is a cover of a love song that serves as musical foreplay: “Oh my baby/Won’t you please let me love you and get a release from this awful misery.”

 

What follows is a cover of the Billie Holiday song, “There Is No Greater Love.” (See lyrics at right.) Complete with the sound of crackling vinyl, the song offers a strong expression of love as a feeling and emotion.

 

Winehouse revisits the post-breakup theme in “In My Bed,” about their diminishing relationship and how that has effected their sexual activity with each other. It appears she is frustrated with the way things have gone, and now he’s interested in and expecting the physical aspect of their former relationship to continue: “It’s something I know you can’t do/Separate sex with emotion … Oh, it’s you again/Listen, this isn’t a reunion/So sorry if I turn my head/Yours is a familiar face/But that don’t make your place safe in my bed … Now it’s not hard to understand/The only time I hold your hand/Is to get the angle right.”

 

She gives her ex his possessions back in “Take The Box.” Even though she’s emptying her life of his stuff, she’s still conflicted: “I just don’t know you/But you make me cry/Where’s my kiss goodbye?/I think I love you … I don’t wanna be reminded of you … Now take the box/Take the box/Take the box.”

 

The fact that Amy Winehouse has a soft and tender side comes out in “October Song.” The cut laments the death of her pet canary: “Ava was the morning/Now she’s gone/She’s reborn like Sarah Vaughan/In the sanctuary she has found/Birds surround her sweet sound/And Ava flies in paradise.”

 

Winehouse pours out her heart and offers listeners a peek into the pain and hurt of her own past in “What Is It About Men?” (See lyrics on page 9.) She begins by singing about her dad and his extra-marital affairs. She says of the song, “It’s me trying to work out my Dad’s problems with sticking with one woman, trying to make sense of certain things. I completely understand it now. People like to have sex with people. I don’t begrudge my Dad just because he has a penis” (The Observer, 2/1/2004). Winehouse understands not because she’s had a shift in her thinking about her dad, but because she’s engaged in infidelity herself. In the song she goes on to speak to another woman about her infidelity. Still, she recognizes that she has a growing destructive side, that she pursues the wrong men and that she has behavioral patterns that she is unwilling to let go of. She is questioning herself as she seems to know right from wrong, but continues doing wrong by embracing the cycle of dysfunction that’s been passed down by her Dad.

 

In “Amy, Amy, Amy” Winehouse gives herself a finger-wagging scolding, warning herself about her weaknesses and harmful traits—particularly in regards to her relationships with men: “My weakness for the other sex/Every time his shoulders flex/His shirt hangs off his back/My train of thought spins right off track.” She knows it’s dangerous, but she still does it: “Although I’ve been here before/You know you’re too hard to ignore … I think you’d wear me well … Amy, Amy, Amy.”

 

The album ends with a short “Outro.”

 

Back to Black (Released in U.K 10/30/2006, Released in U.S. 3/2007). Like its predecessor Frank, this sophomore album from Winehouse is autobiographical regarding a break up, this time with Blake. The on-again off-again relationship contributed to her continued self-abuse and provided ample fodder for song themes. She says, “My songs are very honest about a relationship that didn’t survive. I only write songs when there is a problem that I can’t get through. I write a song about it to put myself past it. Back to Black is when you’ve finished a relationship and you go back to what’s comfortable for you. My ex went back to his girlfriend and I went back to my drinking and hard times” (The Sun, 10/27/2006). Winehouse says the album’s songs wrote themselves and that the entire process was very cathartic for her. Ironically, the relationship was on-again after the album was released and Winehouse has since married Blake.

 

The album has been nominated for and won numerous awards, including five Grammys. It was the best-selling album of 2007 in the U.K. Rolling Stone’s Jenny Eliscu says it “sounds like a British hip-hop brat’s interpretation of sixties Motown soul” (Rolling Stone, 6/14/2007).

 

Pre-released one week before the album itself, the disc’s first single, “Rehab” (See lyrics on page 9.), garnered top spot among Time magazine’s Best 10 Songs of 2007, while winning Grammys for “Record of the Year” and “Song of the Year.” Written in response to her record company’s push to go to rehab, the song recounts her refusal to comply with their request. In fact, she dumped the record company and wrote the song. Ironically, since the album was released, Winehouse has been in and out of drug and alcohol rehab. In the song, she confesses that her addictions arise out of fear of losing her boyfriend. She is incredibly insecure. The song’s video and radio airplay fueled Winehouse’s rapid rise in popularity in the U.S.

 

“You Know I’m No Good” is the disc’s second single-release and also was in video rotation. (In fact, hidden at the end of the album is a remix of the song featuring rapping by Ghostface Killah.) In this song, Winehouse makes it clear that females can be just as bad as the guys who mess them over. Her up and down relationships shine through as she cheats on her guy—all the while thinking about him while cheating, confessing it to him and trying to come back: “Upstairs in bed with my ex boy/He’s in a place but I can’t get joy/Thinking on you in the final throes/This is when my buzzer goes/Run out to meet you, chips and pitta/You say ‘when we married’/’Cause you not bitter/There’ll be none of him no more/I cried for you on the kitchen floor … I cheated myself/Like I knew I would/I told you I was trouble/You know that I’m no good.”

 

The ’60s girl group sound comes through loud and clear on “Me and Mr. Jones.” Winehouse declares that “nobody stands between me and my man/It’s me and Mr. Jones.” She addresses the guy she’s broken up with: “You thought I didn’t love you when I did/Can’t believe you played me out like that.” She’s upset with him for cheating: “No you ain’t worth the guest list/Plus one of all them girls you kiss/You can’t keep lying to yourself like this/Can’t believe you played yourself out like this.” She asks him, “What kind of f___ery are we?/Nowadays you don’t mean d___ to me.” Even though she’s been jilted, she comes back in true Amy Winehouse can’t-let-go fashion and says, “I still want to wonder ‘bout the things you do.”

 

The post-breakup theme is back on “Just Friends,” a song about the difficulty of going from a romantic relationship to being, well, just friends. Everybody has either heard or used that line at some time. She wonders, “When will we get the time to be just friends/It’s never safe for us/Not even in the evening cause I’ve been drinking/Not in the morning when your s___ works/It’s always dangerous/When everybody’s sleeping and I been thinking/Can we be alone/Can we be alone.” Again, Winehouse shows her vulnerability and yearning: “It gets worse/I want to touch you/But that just hurts.”

 

The Supreme-like sounding title track, “Back to Black,” is another Winehouse lament over love lost. Her ex runs straight from her to another lover: “He left no time to regret/Kept his d___ wet/With his same old safe bet/Me and my head high/And my tears dry/Get on without my guy/You went back to what you knew/So far removed from all we went through/And I tread a troubled track/My odds are stacked/I’ll go back to black.” For Winehouse, her relationship with him is redemptive. Without him she is lost in a life of darkness. The song’s video—filmed in black and white—follows a funeral procession as Winehouse buries her relationship in a graveyard. The video closes with “RIP—The Heart of Amy Winehouse.”

 

Her lamenting tone continues as her experiences lead her to conclude that “Love Is A Losing Game.” Love hurts and doesn’t work: “Love is a losing game/One I wish I never played/Oh what a mess we made/And now that final frame/Love is a losing game.”

 

Reminiscent of the sound of Marvin Gaye’s hit tune “Ain’t No Mountain,” the album’s next song about her breakup with Blake is “Tears Dry On Their Own.” Winehouse tells listeners that you never really get over it. Living in the darkness again, she reminisces about the relationship that was: “All I can ever be to you/Is the darkness that we knew/And this regret I had to get accustomed to/Once it was so right/When we were at our high/Waiting for you in the hotel at night/I knew I hadn’t met my match/But every moment we could snatch/I don’t know why I get so attached/It’s my responsibility/And you don’t owe nothing to me/But to walk away I have no capacity.” In the song’s chorus she states her resolve to move on: “He walks away/The sun goes down/He takes the day but I’m grown/And in this grey, in this blue shade/My tears dry on their own.” Because the breakup came after he cheated on her she says to him, “I’ll be some next man’s other woman soon.” The song’s video offers a powerful image of Winehouse walking down a crowded city street, yet very much alone. It juxtaposes these images with her alone on her bed. Throughout both scenes, the sun is rising and setting as life without him goes on.

 

The bed takes center stage in “Wake Up Alone.” Winehouse sings about the gnawing emptiness she feels now that he’s gone: “It’s okay in the day/I’m staying busy/Tied up enough so I don’t have to wonder where is he/Got so sick of crying/So just lately/When I catch myself I do a 180/I stay up clean the house/At least I’m not drinking/Run around just so I don’t have to think about thinking/That silence sense of content that everyone gets/Just disappears soon as the sun sets.” The night is hard on her and she feels incredibly lonely and broken: “He is fierce in my dreams seizing my guts/He floors me with dread/Soaked to the soul he swims in my eyes by the bed/Pour myself over him/Moon spilling in/And I wake up alone.” She still imagines being with him but the reality is that he’s gone. Consequently, “the dark covers me and I cannot run now.”

 

Even in her brokenness, Winehouse still proclaims her allegiance. In “Some Unholy War” she sings, “If my man was fighting some unholy war/I would be behind him/Straight shook up beside him/With the strength he didn’t know.” Still, even with her devotion and support she is forsaken by him and forced into a posture of lament: “B- I would have died too/I would have liked to.” But, he let her go.

 

The album’s final cut is “He Can Only Hold Her.” In this ’60s Motown-sounding song Winehouse sings about the guy who’s replaced Blake in her life. He can’t fully have her as she’s still devoted to Blake: “He can only hold her for so long/No one’s home but the lights are on … Even if she’s content in his warmth/She gets pained with urgency/Urgent kisses/The man she misses/The man that he hopes to be.”

 

What’s the draw?

Amy Winehouse has taken the entertainment news and musical world by storm. She’s connected with a significant and growing number of listeners, both young and old alike. But why? There are several reasons.

 

Amy Winehouse is a breath of fresh air in a very, very stale music industry. The world of popular music has been spinning its wheels for years. Sales are down. And frankly, there’s not been anything stylistically cutting-edge that’s come across the pop music scene for quite some time. Then, out of nowhere comes a sound that’s somehow both recycled, yet refreshingly new. The time is right for Winehouse and her signature sound.

 

This girl is very, very talented. Amy Winehouse has worked hard to master her musical craft. She has been blessed with the God-given ability to write, sing and play music. There’s no getting around it—Amy Winehouse is good.

 

She’s all over the media. Our increasingly celebrity-obsessed culture is catered to by an entertainment news media that uses multiple 24/7 outlets (television, celebrity magazines, tabloids, the Internet, radio, etc.) to feed our fixation, which in the long run grows the monster, making us hungry for even more. There seems to never be a dull moment in Amy Winehouse’s soap opera life, making her especially attractive to celebrity-seeking voyeurs who already have been following the unfolding storylines of people named Spears, Hilton, Ledger, etc. We love celebrity scandal, and Amy Winehouse keeps giving us more.

 

A growing segment of the population shares her pain. Amy Winehouse is not alone. Our culture is riddled with victims of relational brokenness, addictions, disordered-eating and self-abuse. There was a day when these realities occurred much less frequently, they were stigmatized, they were shameful and they were kept under wraps in one’s closet. Not so today. Pain is widespread and worn on the sleeve. Winehouse is a high-profile poster girl who’s been embraced by those who experience her life story, pain, loneliness and confusion. In a way, it’s nice to know somebody else is “a lot like me.” Many listeners find Winehouse to be a mouthpiece for their own pain, hurt and confusion. Amy Winehouse sings “what I feel.”

 

She makes us feel better about ourselves. All humanity has been touched by the Fall. As a result, not one of us experiences life on this earth as it was meant to be. We are broken and we know it. In the midst of our brokenness, we sometimes assuage ourselves by focusing on those worse off than ourselves. If someone’s life is relatively inferior to our own, we feel better. If we’re overweight at 250 pounds, a 300 pounder makes us feel skinny. If we can’t sing a note, a bad American Idol audition eases our own melodic pain. In a sick and twisted way, Amy Winehouse makes many people feel better about themselves—“Look at how messed up she is! I’m not that bad.”

 

Amy Winehouse imbeds postmodern pain in the musical sounds of the good old days. The sound of her music magically transports listeners on a nostalgic ride back to a time when life was simpler, easier and void of so many relational complications—or at least we think it was. In spite of the fact that her lyrics address themes of deep hurt, brokenness and longing, the sound of her music is by and large smooth and somewhat soothing. Like Dave Matthews—whose followers embrace his upbeat sounding music and lyrics of despair—Amy Winehouse addresses painful realities, while offering a gentle and happy musical distraction. For some listeners, this conflicted musical amalgam offers a temporary escape.

 

Her eccentricity plays well in an age of postmodern individualism. “You are in charge of you” and “It’s your life. Do with it what you want.” These are lifestyle credos in today’s world. Amy Winehouse is individualistically edgy in everything—from her dress, to her language, to her tattoos, to her hair. Everything you see and hear from Amy Winehouse is Amy Winehouse. She believes she has to answer to nobody but herself. She’s frank and has been described by some as having a “f___ you!” attitude. She’s an artist who plays well in a culture that increasingly sees tradition and convention as constricting and passé.

 

She’s the realnot objectifiedfemale. Amy Winehouse is not Super-Model beautiful, nor has she allowed her appearance to be digitally re-mastered. Sure, she’s a person of style. But what the Amy Winehouse listeners see is refreshingly authentic, not re-made in the image of magazine covers and photo spreads. For an emerging generation of girls who have been hammered with body image pressure that turns people into objects, Amy Winehouse is a breath of fresh air.

 

The emerging generations embrace those who are vulnerable and transparent. Winehouse’s emotionally charged voice and transparent lyrics give her credibility. She has lived and believes what she sings. She’s an open book for all the world to see. Winehouse sings her reality, a reality that’s shared by a growing segment of her listening audience. Today’s emerging generations are turned off by fakes and drawn to authenticity. Winehouse has connected well because listeners see her as open, sharing her life with them, a life they know because they’ve seen it and lived it themselves.

 

Amy Winehouse has brought the “rebel” back into rock music. One might think that recycling the sound of popular music from the ’60s would automatically mean that Winehouse has tapped into the rebellious spirit of those hippie days. Ironically, that’s not the case. The ’60s sound she embraces is of the older Top 40 feel-good type. But imbedded in those feel-good sounds is thematic content that once again captures the rebellious spirit that’s been largely lost in more recent days. Teenagers and young adults (early, mid and late adolescents) looking to musically differentiate themselves away from the adults in their lives will embrace their rebellion. But Winehouse’s audience is not limited to the young. A large segment of older folks—who during their own ’60s and ’70s adolescence embraced the music of their times to differentiate themselves away from their “older generation”—have latched onto Winehouse as well, as she offers them a thematic and sonic escape back into the rebelliousness of their youth.

 

She sings about real life … especially the heartaches and joys of love found and love lost. Romance always has been difficult and dangerous territory to navigate for teenagers. With marriages occurring at later and later ages or not at all, the trials and travails of romance are very real for today’s twenty- and thirty-somethings. Those going through it have always found in music an expression of the see-saw of emotions that come with the cycle of romantic connections and break-ups. Amy Winehouse is providing a soundtrack for these realties.

 

“Cool” is embodied by her music and style. Marketers are always looking to discover trends that can be co-opted, mass-produced and sold to kids. In an effort to do so, they employ “cool hunters” who infiltrate the edge and fringe of contemporary adolescent culture to find the new stuff kids have invented and embraced as distinguishing marks of their particular subculture and group. Then, they steal it, mass produce it and sell it. It becomes mainstream style. Amy Winehouse and her edgy self are just what cool-hunters hunt. For a culture looking for the next new thing, Winehouse just might be that thing.

 

She’s a friend to hurting kids and young adults. The great irony of the emerging generations is that never has a generation of kids had more tools at their fingertips to keep them relationally connected with others. But in spite of all the cell phones, computers and digital communication devices and platforms at their disposal, never has a generation been more disconnected and alone. Kids want and need a friend. By laying herself bare in a media world that gives kids access to her and her music around the clock, Amy Winehouse has been latched onto as a friend to kids—especially girls—who are broken, alone and hurting. Even though they don’t know her personally, they think they do. And they believe she knows them.

 

How should we respond?

What then, should parents, educators, youth workers and pastors make of Amy Winehouse and her music? Can we use her music and her rapid rise to success as a tool for understanding and reaching the mission field of today’s youth culture? What does she teach us about the emerging generations? Does her story offer any insights into cultural shifts taking place in today’s world? And, does her music offer any insights into how we can better relate to and minister to young people? Let me offer the following analysis and suggestions.

 

We must affirm Amy Winehouse’s musical gifts and abilities. Without question, this young lady has been blessed by God with talent. She has an amazing singing voice, and the ability to write and make music. While we might not like what she sings, she reflects the image of God through her talent and musical ability. It’s both possible and correct to affirm one’s God-given talent, even when that talent is not being consciously employed by the artist to bring honor and glory to its Creator.

 

We must embrace her as a model of self-destruction. For years, the emerging culture has been populated by broken and hurting kids who have been left to find their own way through the earthquake of adolescence. Without guidance and direction, they are left to themselves to make sense out of what life is throwing at them. Sometimes the way they find is not a better way, but a way that leads to self-destruction. More recently, Britney Spears has served as an example of a misguided “good teenage girl” who has transitioned into adulthood with self-destructive tendencies. Now, there’s Amy Winehouse who has emerged onto the scene as an adult with these same tendencies. As such, she is worth discussing with our children and teens. She is a real-life example of how, when left unaddressed, the Fall can lead us down dangerous paths. But don’t be tempted to wag your disapproving finger at Winehouse if you use her as an example. Instead, go a step further and use her as a positive example of Christ-like compassion by teaching your kids to love and minister to those who are broken, even if that brokenness is furthered by their own self-destructive choices.

 

Discuss the realities and results of our culture’s obsession with the female body. Disordered eating has reached epidemic proportions among today’s children, teens and young adults. The body image pressure that lies at the root of this epidemic does not respect people. We should be grateful that Amy Winehouse has openly discussed the pressures she’s felt and how those pressures continue to effect her life. We can’t do enough to understand these realities and talk about them with our kids. We must teach them that inevitably they will face the pressure. We must teach them that living God’s will and way for their lives requires them to do all they can to reverse the growing tide of these pressures through a “thy will be done” Kingdom mentality and resolve.

 

We must preach the truth about the only One who redeems. The “unknown god” in today’s culture is all-too-often human relationships, particularly romantic relationships. Hungry for restoration to that which existed before the Fall, human beings search high and low for a redeemer to make them whole once again. We look to relationships with others to fulfill, but those relationships are destined to come up short, leaving us hungrier than we ever were before. Amy Winehouse offers ample evidence of this fact. We must help our culture’s seekers put human relationships in their proper perspective. Then, we must proclaim the truth about the only One who can redeem, Jesus Christ.

 

Let’s stop our obsession with celebrity and leave them alone. As Britney Spears quickly unraveled, our celebrity obsession led a growing army of paparazzi to chase her down like a pack of hungry dogs caught in a feeding frenzy. The reason? Put Britney’s face on a magazine and the magazine flies off the racks. The same is now happening to Amy Winehouse. We need to call for and encourage a shift in focus for two reasons. First, we must leave these poor people alone so that they can get help and experience the healing they so desperately long for without contributing to their angst and pain. Second, we must teach our celebrity-obsessed kids to focus their hearts and minds on those things that are good, true, right and honorable. And, we must tell them that by doing so, they might actually be showing compassion to the hurting celebrity who needs time and space to heal.

 

We must teach kids about relationships and love. Amy Winehouse—through her music and her life—trumpets the fact that our relational IQ is in a steady and steep decline. A growing segment of the emerging generations has never seen a healthy relationship up close and personal. Their parents’ marriages have fallen apart. They’ve never seen conflict resolved. They have no idea what “love” really is. They have embarked on a lifestyle of promiscuous sexual behavior in the hope that they might experience even only a few minutes of intimacy with another human being. They don’t understand gender roles. The church must speak openly and aggressively about love, marriage and sexuality through the dual platforms of lifestyle proclamation and deep conversation. In other words, we must be living a Kingdom relational agenda that is then spoken and lived before a watching world that knows deep down inside that it isn’t getting it right.

 

Amy Winehouse provides an opportunity to discuss the existence of sin and its consequences. Perhaps the first person to admit that Amy Winehouse is a walking train wreck would be … Amy Winehouse. But it would be wrong to write her off as a hopeless case for the simple fact that there are none. Instead, we should look at Winehouse’s life through the framework of a biblical world and life view, pointing out the way that sin and human fallenness are not only present in her life, but leaving a well-marked trail of hurt and pain. In other words, we must define sin and point out the nuances of how our rebellion against God is being uniquely embraced and lived in today’s world, starting with divorce, family breakdown, etc. Then, we must point out how embracing sin is like building a bomb—a bomb that may explode at one point in time, but that leaves long-lasting wounds as it continues to ripple through time from generation to generation. Exposing sin and its consequences can serve as a great deterrent. As a result, we must discuss these things with the kids we know and love.

 

We must affirm Winehouse where she gets it right. For example, while you might find the title of her song, “F___ Me Pumps” revolting, the song’s lyrics do point to realities that we can affirm from a biblical world and life view. The bar-hopping lifestyle of women looking for sexual intimacy is a dangerous and dead-end road. While Winehouse doesn’t build a theological case that offers the best way in these matters, her critique offers a wonderful springboard for discussion that we can affirm before going deeper. As with all music, we can and must look more deeply into the Amy Winehouse musical package to uncover those thematic elements that we can celebrate and affirm.

 

Amy Winehouse offers opportunities to discuss substance abuse and addictions with our kids. Because they are young and feel seemingly invulnerable, even our kids who have heard about the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse can easily fall into the trap of believing they can experiment and avoid harm because—after all—“nothing bad will ever happen to me.” Sadly, our youth and adult culture is littered with folks who once thought that about themselves, but now realize how wrong they were. With Amy Winehouse our kids not only will hear about the dangers of abuse and addiction, but they can see it firsthand. While we don’t want to fall into the trap of exploitation, we can and must point to Winehouse as a living and breathing example of the sad results of substance abuse and addiction.

 

We must encourage fathers to love their kids by loving their wives. When asked about the life-events that have shaped her, Winehouse oftentimes refers to her father’s marital infidelity and the resulting divorce. Sadly, Winehouse has reconciled her pain and experience by choosing to live the same type of life—something that happens quite often as the sin of one generation is passed to the next. While Winehouse hasn’t embraced the resolve to not be like her father, we shouldn’t miss that opportunity. We must challenge and equip dads to know, understand and embrace God’s plan for the family. In addition, we must help dads see what happens when that design is not followed. And, in those cases where the kids we know and love have already been broken and hurt by the failures of their parents, we must provide surrogates who will love them unconditionally, so that they might grow up with the resolve to never repeat the patterns themselves.

 

Loneliness is epidemic in our culture. The church must provide a loving community. Amy Winehouse is a poster girl for so many negative cultural realities. One of those realties is loneliness. Winehouse offers a window into the deep loneliness sweeping through our communities. Corporately, our churches must become places where the lonely can find connections with other humans and with their Creator. Individually, we must reach out to those in our neighborhoods and paths who are disconnected, even if they don’t look, sound, think or act like us. We have been made for connections, and if we desire to truly follow Jesus, we will go out of our way to connect.

 

The church must model and dispense Christ-like compassion. Woven in and through Amy Winehouse’s music is an unmistakable cry for redemption. Her music serves as an expression of spiritual hunger pains. We must answer the cries by becoming the hands and feet of Jesus, by living and sharing the Gospel with unmistakable clarity. This, after all, is what she and the rest of our unredeemed world is ultimately groaning for.

 

With another album due for release later this year, Amy Winehouse is here to stay. While she’s the one making the music, a growing segment of her generation that lives among us and around us is living her reality. Are we listening? And what will we do about what we hear?

 

 

Lyrical Examples:

 

F___ Me Pumps

When you walk in the bar/And you’re dressed like a star/Rocking you f___ me pumps/And the men notice you/And ya Gucci bag crew/Can’t tell who he’s looking to/Cos you all look the same/Everyone knows ya name/And that’s your whole claim to fame/Never miss a night/Cos your dream in life/Is to be a footballer’s wife/You don’t like players/That’s what you say/But you really wouldn’t mind a millionaire/You don’t like ballers/They don’t do nothing for ya/But you’d love a rich man 6’ 2” or taller/You’re more than a fan/Looking for a man/But you end up with one-night stands/He could be your whole life/If you got past one night/But that part never goes right/In the morning you’re vexed/He’s onto the next/And you don’t even get no text/Don’t be too upset if they call you a sket/Cos like the news everyday you get press.

 

You can’t sit down right/Cos yas jeans are too tight/And you’re lucky it’s ladies night/With your big empty purse/Every week it gets worse/At least your breasts cost more than hers/So you did Miami cos you got there for free/But somehow you missed the plane/So you did too much E – met somebody/And spent the night getting caned/Without girls like you there’d be no fun/We’d go to the club and not see anyone/Without girls like you there’s no nightlife/All those men just go home to their wife/Don’t be mad at me cos ya pushing thirty/And your old tricks no longer work/You should’ve known from the jump/That you’ll always get dumped/So dust off your F___ Me … Pumps …

 

What Is It About Men?

Understand once he was a family man/So surely I would never, ever go through it firsthand/Emulate all the s___ my mother hate/I can’t help but demonstrate my Freudian fate/My alibi for taking your guy/History repeats itself, it fails to die/And animal aggression is my downfall/I don’t care about what you got, I want it all

 

It’s bricked up in my head and shoved under my bed/And I question myself again—What is it about men?/My destructive side has grown a mile wide/And I question myself again—What is it about men?

 

I’m nurturing—I just wanna do my thing/And I’ll take the wrong man as naturally as I sing/And I’ll save my tears for uncovering my fears/For behavioral patterns that stick over the years

 

Rehab

They tried to make me go to rehab I said no no no/Yes I’ve been black but when I come back no no no/I ain’t got the time, and if my daddy thinks I’m fine/They tried to make be go to rehab I won’t go go go

 

I’d rather be at home with Ray/I ain’t got 70 days/’Cause there’s nothing, there’s nothing you can teach me/That I can’t learn from Mr. Hathaway/Didn’t get a lot in class/But I know it don’t come in a shot glass.

 

The man said “Why do you think you here?”/I said I got no idea/I’m gonna, I’m gonna lose my baby/So I always keep a bottle near/He said “I just think you’re depressed”/This me “Yeah baby, and the rest.”

 

I don’t ever want to drink again/I just, ohh I just need a friend/I’m not gonna spend ten weeks/Have everyone think I’m on the mend/It’s not just my pride/It’s just till these tears have dried.

 

 

 

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For more information on resources to help you understand today’s rapidly changing youth culture, contact the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding.

 

©2008, The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding