By Amanda Wicks
This week marks ten years since Amy Winehouse released her classic Back to Black in England (the album wouldn’t hit the U.S. until early 2007). Her second studio album, it launched the singer to superstardom, and won five GRAMMY awards, including Song of the Year, Record of the Year and Best New Artist. Here, we take a look back at Winehouse’s last studio album before her 2011 death claimed the talented singer/songwriter far before her time.
A stark declaration launched “Rehab,” the opening track from Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black. “They tried to make me go to rehab,” the British singer intoned before offering up her response to that suggestion, “No, no, no.” There was no melodic intro, no rhythmic build-up; instead, Winehouse’s vocals crashed through the song’s opening. She wasn’t going to waste a breath mincing words. It was clear that she was different from the other pop stars of the era.
Arriving in 2006 after the highly acclaimed but less popular Frank, Back to Black took pop music on a journey. There were soulful beats, old school R&B flares and jazzy inflections, yet it sounded current because of its hip-hop swagger. Thanks to that mixture of “then and now,” it stood out among the year’s big hits, like Justin Timberlake’s FutureSex/LoveSounds, Beyoncé’s B’day and Christina Aguilera’s Back to Basics. It stayed cool where Timberlake wanted to rev up the club, it vocalized an addictive relationship where Beyoncé sang about independence and it made a statement where Aguilera straddled the line between her former image and her “dirrtier” side.
Winehouse’s love of classic sounds like Motown, Stax and ’60s and ’70s R&B informed the songs on Back to Black. There was her take on “Me and Mrs. Jones”: “Me & Mr. Jones” (“Mr. Jones” was a reference to Nas, whose real name is Nasir Jones). On “Tears Dry on Their Own,” she played with the central melodic riff in the classic “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” Her references allowed her to combine the past with the present in a way that made her seem all at once timeless and current, but most of all very cool. And the industry was enamored with her voice, her songs, her style and her persona.
Listening to Back to Black today, two things are evident: the album is a remarkable piece of work that stretched the limits of contemporary pop music, but it also relied heavily on Winehouse’s intense personal struggles. Her pain made the album soar, and it’s her pain that lingers still, five years after her death and ten years after the album’s release. She was a songwriter who also happened to be a pop star, a juxtaposition that thrust a very sensitive soul into the spotlight and became an issue she struggled with on a daily basis as the paparazzi beat a path to her door.
Pop stars become famous for their voices, their personas and their performances; songwriting doesn’t always define a key part of their success. Of course, listeners associate great songs with the artists who sing them, but singing a great song is a far cry from writing one. Aside from the production help Winehouse received from producers Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi, she largely wrote her album. Back to Black was Winehouse’s story. She shared her public issues with her husband Blake Fielder-Civil, her battle with drugs and alcohol, and an increasingly fragmented relationship with her father. Winehouse took confessional songwriting to a new level, singing with brutal honesty about her flaws, weaknesses, addictions and more, all of which resonated in a big way. Her struggles rang true to many.
On “Tears Dry On Their Own,” she equated love with a form of addiction. “I don’t understand/ Why do I stress the man/ When there’s so many bigger things at hand/ We coulda never had it all/ We had to hit a wall/ So this is inevitable withdrawal/ Even if I stop wanting you/ A perspective pushes through/ I’ll be some next man’s other woman soon/ I cannot play myself again/ I should just be my own best friend/ Not f— myself in the head with stupid men.” Her cyclical man trouble was a tangled web she couldn’t break free of; she may have wanted to be strong and independent, but she knew she’d continually look in a man’s eyes to find her value reflected back to her.
Then there was the album’s haunting title track, where Winehouse’s voice pined — it practically ached — with longing. Detailing her breakup with Fielder-Civil, she sang about its suddenness and how she was left behind to pick up the pieces of a picture she wanted to reframe, even if its cracks would always show. “We only said goodbye with words/ I died a hundred times/ You go back to her/ And I go back to,” she sang, pausing in the penultimate version of the chorus before repeating “black” over and over again. The word’s chilling invocation became a mantra she could not escape, a void that threatened to collapse her very subjectivity.
Back to Black showed that chart topping pop music could incorporate older, more classic styles, but beyond that it showcased how potent a personal narrative could be when framed against a genre known for lighter, arguably flightier, fare. In sharing her struggle, Winehouse did what any strong songwriter would and revealed all the pieces, good and bad, but she didn’t anticipate the spotlight she would receive as a pop star. Hers was the kind of career that combines two seemingly antithetical experiences and asks someone to survive it all. Sadly, Winehouse didn’t.