The woman who could have ruled the world
With the death of Amy Winehouse, British music has lost what should have been its brightest talent.
Michael P Fitzpatrick
The death of Amy Winehouse has resulted in fans leaving flowers, tributes and even bottles of alcohol outside her luxury London flat in Camden. Her death has been generally greeted with sympathy by fans and celebrities. There is no doubt that the lippy north London Jewish girl was an extraordinary talent and one that will hopefully be remembered for years to come.
I remember the first time I heard Winehouse. I was 15 at the time and only really into Rap and Hip Hop. However, one of my friends had the song ‘Fuck me Pumps’ (from her first album Frank) on his laptop and the thing that struck me upon first hearing it was the voice: it was like nothing I’d heard before. I had only really been exposed to samey R’n’B singers such as Alicia Keys, Beyoncé and Rihanna at this point, and Winehouse was like something from a different planet; the wide vocal range, the mature gruffness and the subtle elegance were unbelievable. After that I became obsessed and fell in love with her second album Back to Black. The album is a masterpiece, with Winehouse’s incredible voice telling stories of betrayal, depression and drug abuse.
Despite my growing love for her music, I never really developed any affection for Winehouse herself. She was not unpleasant in interviews – in fact she was often friendly, witty and responsive. But it became apparent that she had not worked as hard as others for the fame and fortune that her talent deserved. I am not saying that she did not put work in, it’s just that when her voice matured all she really had to do was open her mouth and record companies were falling over each other trying to get her signature. Her record company, Island, was apparently spending a fortune on Winehouse’s recovery from alcoholism and drug addiction right up until her death, which speaks volumes considering she had not released any music for over four years.
Her marriage to Blake Fielder-Civil was always going to be destructive. It led Winehouse not just into drug problems but also into mental troubles writ large in her all-too-evident self-harming. In 2008, I had brought tickets to see Amy Winehouse at Shepherd’s Bush but she cancelled in order to have what proved to be an unsuccessful stint in rehab. Everything about her frustrated me. She had this incredible talent present not just in her voice but in her song writing, too. However, it seemed clear by 2008 that she was never going to fulfil that talent.
Her performances during this time were heavily criticised. Her 2008 show at Glastonbury was all over the place and she even tried to attack one of the festival goers. And then a few weeks later, at Nelson Mandela’s ninetieth birthday celebrations, she changed the lyrics to The Specials’ ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ to ‘free Blakey my fella’ after Fielder-Civil had been imprisoned.
Winehouse rapidly became a sad figure similar to that of Jimi Hendrix or Shane McGowan – victims of their own excess. This was upsetting and infuriating at the same time. At her best there were few who could come close to her. Her winning of five Grammys shows how acclaimed she was even in the United States – even though she was refused a visa to attend the ceremony and had to play via satellite from London. In her acceptance speech for Record of the Year for Back to Black – in which she beat heavyweights like Beyonce and Justin Timberlake – she dedicated her award to Camden Town where a fire had occurred only weeks before: ‘Camden Town ain’t burning down!’ It was a fantastic moment, one which confirmed that Winehouse could become the queen of UK music for years to come. Yet despite that high point, many music fans will look at hers as a talent that was unfulfilled.
Her death is certainly a major blow to the UK music business. Many people criticise British music claiming that it will always be overshadowed by its massive American counterpart. Of course there have been The Beatles, the Rolling Stones and, more recently, Oasis. However, in recent times, it is hard to pinpoint musicians with similar statuses. Craig David never fulfilled his potential and So Solid’s early success was followed by many of its members heading for prison.
Maybe Plan B or Dizzee Rascal will take the baton and represent London on a global scale. Or maybe Adele, an artist similar to Winehouse, will do what Winehouse could not. While Winehouse’s 2008 Grammy triumph will live on as a great moment in British music history, what is so tragic is that she could have achieved Beyoncé-like status and ruled the world.
Despite her huge unfulfilled potential, the tortured genius of her two albums will live on. It’s just sad that she could not create yet more inspired music.
Michael P Fitzpatrick is a former spiked intern.