Amy Winehouse made pop music into magic, into high art. She had a genius for rhythm, an uncanny ear for melody, and an extraordinary knowledge of how to take advantage of her matchless voice.
From the first time I heard Back to Black (2006), what grabbed me about Winehouse’s music was the richness of the production—she understood that the heart of great pop is the depth, the layering, of its sound. Because of her ability to build her music like the layers of an oil painting, every song on that album is drenched in the abundant influences of pop music history—from blues to rap to R&B to jazz. It’s not just that her music is beautiful, catchy, entertaining, ridiculously funny, chilling—her music is smart. As Sasha Frere-Jones writes, “She sounded like an original sixties soul star, developed when the landscape had no rules.”
The complexity of her identity—Jew, Brit, unabashed adorer of Black American music—was part of what gave her enigmatic presence so much power and so much productive tension. Her fearlessness in her music allowed her to play with nostalgia while fundamentally changing the face and direction of women’s blue-eyed soul (see: Adele, Duffy) and maybe popular music entirely.
Her death on Jul 23, 2011, was heart-breaking, and tragic, and horribly unsurprising. May her memory be for a blessing.