Amy Winehouse and the plight of the female genius


The new film Amy reminds us that no matter how talented a woman is, or how brilliant her work, her behavior dictates how she is perceived.

Asif Kapadia’s documentary of the life of Amy Winehouse — released nationwide on Friday— depicts her rise to fame from her humble beginnings singing “Happy Birthday” to a friend as a 14-year-old to her performances on the worldwide stage. Watching Amy is a depressing, heart-breaking journey through one woman’s descent into addiction, but it’s also a brutal reminder of the lens through which we see women in music.

A London-born jazz singer with a towering beehive of hair and a soulful voice, Amy Winehouse is most often remembered for her very public and messy drug addiction and her most popular song — “Rehab.” It is almost impossible to separate Amy Winehouse, the creator of two brilliant and innovative albums, from Amy Winehouse, the pop star who drunkenly stumbled through crowds of paparazzi.

There is a scene in Amy in which Winehouse is in a tiny, closet of a studio recording the final version of “Back to Black,” the title song of her second album. The scene is shot from a handheld personal camera within the soundbooth of a studio. Mark Ronson, who produced and co-wrote “Back to Black,” makes an off-handed comment off-camera about how everyone told him how difficult Winehouse was to work with and how impossible it was to get her to focus. Ronson didn’t have that problem.

Maybe Winehouse was having a good day. Maybe she was struck with a bout of inspiration. She’s seen focused and passionate, inside the studio writing lyrics on a notepad and fleshing out the final version of “Back to Black.” That song would chart at number 25 and become Winehouse’s third-best selling single, and she wrote it herself. In fact, Winehouse wrote all of Back to Black. Only four of the songs on Back to Black have co-writers.

Compare that to another popular female artist who is credited with writing her own music: Taylor Swift. Most of Taylor Swift’s discography has been co-written.  In fact, an artist writing all of an album herself is a rarity in modern music, because there is money to be made on sharing credit.

For Winehouse to have written almost all of a hit album — especially after being laden with Sony ATV co-writers on her first album — is an incredible feat of artistry, and one that goes largely unnoticed and unrecognized because of her behavior.

Even Amy, a movie solely about her life and work, contrasts almost every moment of praise for Winehouse’s ability with a point about how sad it is that she couldn’t control herself. That, of course, is an incredibly gendered viewpoint. For decades men have been outright admired if not praised for use and abuse of substances. Winehouse’s usage was an embarrassment, constantly touted as out-of-control, terrible, and bad for her career. While all of these things were true, they weren’t critiques that were or are normally waged against male artists of the same or even lesser caliber than Amy Winehouse.

It was impossible for me to watch this movie without thinking about another film released earlier this year: Brett Morgan’s documentary on the life and death of Nirvana front-man Kurt Cobain, Montage of Heck. Their fates were undeniably similar; even in the New York Times obituary for Winehouse, Kurt Cobain is mentioned.

Kurt Cobain’s destructive, heroin-filled life with Courtney Love isn’t depicted as pitiful in Montage of Heck. There are videos of he and Courtney high out of their minds, dancing around in their living rooms. There are home-videos of Kurt doing drugs and seeming completely out of it. The rise of TMZ and tabloids is partly to blame for the differences in how each of their addictions were portrayed in the media. There are photos of Winehouse at every single stage of her addiction. There are very few of Kurt Cobain.

But more is to be said in the media’s idolization of a blonde boy from Seattle’s group effort to change rock-and-roll. Cobain, like Winehouse, was a songwriter. He wrote every single song on Nirvana’s hugely popular album Nevermind, but he lacked talent in areas that Winehouse didn’t. He was clumsy on guitar — worrrying about his performance on MTV Unplugged — and his voice was distinctive, but lackluster. Cobain was a great artist, and one who revolutionized rock in the ’90s. But Amy Winehouse undeniably revolutionized 2000s pop, and that shouldn’t matter any less.

When Winehouse released Frank in 2003, there was absolutely nothing like it on the charts. Before Winehouse, the Top 40 was full of R&B and bubblegum pop princesses. She ushered in a new guard. Once Back to Black broke through, record labels knew that they could make money with jazz-inspired crooners, and they lined them up. After Winehouse, we got Lady Gaga, Adele, Sam Smith, Charlie Pugh, and dozens and dozens of Winehouse wannabes who have graced the Top 40 in her absence.

When Winehouse died, Lady Gaga posted on Twitter: “Amy changed pop music forever, I remember knowing there was hope, and feeling not alone because of her. She lived jazz, she lived the blues.”

What Amy Winehouse accomplished — being a woman in the Top 40 with a killer voice and songs about boys — isn’t deemed as “art.” AS Molly Beaucheim wrote for Pitchfork in June: “We martyr our women because we fear their greatness. We do so because we fear women who are living out of bounds.”

In Winehouse’s obituary in Rolling Stone, Jenny Eliscu wrote that the genius of Back to Black wasn’t Winehouse at all; it “was pairing her with producer Mark Ronson,” completely taking the credit for the album away from the artist who created it.

Amy gives moments of insight into just how talented of an artist Winehouse was. There’s an interview with Questlove in which he says that Winehouse taught him more about jazz than his formal education. “She used to assign us homework,” he laughs. She idolized Tony Bennett, one of the greatest living jazz singers; in the film, her eyes light up when she sees him on television. She acts incredibly nervous when the two record together. The movie illustrates how Winehouse wasn’t just a voice, she was an artist.

A woman’s downfall is not the product of her brilliance. In the narrative created for her, Winehouse had a drug problem not because she was a genius struggling to deal with an immense amount of fame, but because she was a weak young girl who was easily manipulated by men. She doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt. Her New York Times obituary says nothing about her writing.

Though the documentary tries to recognize Winehouse’s writing ability by highlighting the lyrics to her songs on the screen and showing her handwritten notes, it’s always in passing that her work is mentioned. The focus, as it has been for female geniuses for generations, is on her behavior and her love life.

Winehouse didn’t just succeed monumentally, she created. She wasn’t a little girl with a drug problem. She was one of the greatest songwriters and vocalists of our generation.

Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.

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