Amy Winehouse: “You Know I’m No Good” (In Memoriam)
Under normal circumstances, given the way my brain works when I’m deciding which song to feature on a given day here, I wouldn’t have gotten around to Amy Winehouse for quite a while. She would have shown up at some point, though, so it saddens me that her appearance here is as a memoriam after her death this past weekend.
Amy possessed a voice that seemed outsized compared to her diminutive frame — nothing that powerful could be coming out of a woman that small, could it? When she came out with her second album, 2006’s Back to Black, full of potent R&B-inflected retro pop songs, people took notice in an equivalently big way. It actually took me a while to listen to the album, being by nature suspicious of anything doing that well in the pop charts. But finally, after liking what I had heard and read enough to give it a try, I bought the album and realized that this was the arrival of a very special talent. Not only did she have the voice, but she knew how to use it, and had the songwriting chops as well. Her songs sounded as though they had arrived fully formed from another era, yet they were thoroughly modern at the same time.
It was frustrating to watch her flush everything down the toilet in the years following her success. Her drug consumption and the ensuing, very public downfall made her the punchline to endless unpleasant jokes that really only served to highlight the ugliness of our media culture. While all too glad to watch a celebrity’s every move, that same media machine is all too quick to turn on that same subject of adulation and rip them to shreds when they prove not to possess the psychic stamina to withstand that kind of scrutiny. I doubt anything can prepare a person for the havoc that large-scale success can wreak on their private life.
It would be easy to remember Amy Winehouse as just a junkie who sang, taking her hit single “Rehab” at face value, but she deserves much better than that. However unappealing her public image had become, anyone who could write a song as good as “You Know I’m No Good” and sing it as well as she did, like a modern-day Billie Holiday, was a true talent. The song grooves along like a classic blues/Motown hybrid with a hip-hop beat; the production by Mark Ronson evokes everything great about ’60s R&B. Winehouse sang with a depth that can only spring from a well of inner beauty that drugs can’t extinguish, even as they mask it. Whatever we may have witnessed in the media about the mess that was her life, it’s worth remembering that somewhere inside was the same person who was able to create songs like this and sing them with such beautiful sadness. Sadly, she was never able to pull it all together enough to record a followup to Back to Black, and that’s our loss as much as hers.