By Paul Mathews
11:40 AM EDT, July 25, 2011
When Amy Winehouse's album "Back to Black" first appeared on American charts, I was teaching the History of Rock at Johns Hopkins. Given my focus on the history of musical genres, I was immediately struck by her innovative use of the past. Ms. Winehouse was interested in the "girl groups" of the early 1960s, a music that was generally dismissed as frivolous. She heard those songs differently and created a contemporary version of that music style that is still fresh and relevant.
Amy Winehouse was to the girl groups of the 1960s what the Stray Cats were to the rockabilly of the 1950s. Like the Stray Cats, Ms. Winehouse's arresting appearance made a caricature of her source material: The beehive hair became an unkempt bird's nest, and cat's eye makeup swirled recklessly back to her ears. And then there were the tattoos, which make her more resemble the Stray Cats than the Shangri-Las. But she was passionate about the artists that informed her own music-making. When she sang, she was in earnest.
While it is convenient to think of the Ronnettes and the Dixie Cups as the soundtrack to an uncomplicated time, the girl groups that Ms. Winehouse adored only dominated Billboard charts after a string of tragedies. The two-year period between 1958 and 1960 saw the draft of Elvis Presley, the public disgrace of Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and disc jockey Alan Freed, and the deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, the Big Bopper and Eddie Cochran. The genre of rock and roll seemed over only three years after it began.
The tragedies that nearly ended rock created a unique opportunity for the girl groups. Unlike "dangerous" rock music, the Cookies and the Crystals seemed carefree and squeaky-clean: an image that was carefully groomed with high production values. Rock was often spontaneously composed when recorded. The girl groups relied on professionals. Most of the songs were composed at the famous Brill Building in New York. They were matched to artists in Los Angeles who recorded them under Svengali producers, such as Phil Spector. The final product went back to New York to be marketed by Madison Avenue.
This well-crafted, well-oiled machine produced hits through the Cuban missile crisis and the Kennedy assassination and the early throes of the civil rights movement. It took the juggernaut of the Beatles — with a new rock sensibility informed by the professionalism of the girl groups and Motown — to displace the girl groups.
The songs that Ms. Winehouse co-wrote and recorded were certainly retrospective. However, it would be a mistake to dismiss her as "retro," with all the connotative kitsch that entails. Ms. Winehouse's unique vision was to take the Shirelles at their word. In her recording of, "Will you still love me, tomorrow?" which she contributed to the soundtrack for "Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason," we don't hear the mewing of young women pinched into a small band of sound perfectly suited for AM radio. Rather, we hear a voice that recalls a young Sarah Vaughn, lazily touching notes on the back of the beat. Ms. Winehouse seemed both impatient with the slower tempo and genuinely depressed by the lyrics, which lose all of their naiveté. The title is no longer a question.
Amy Winehouse seemed to draw her strength from the larger sense of women being empowered by music. In embracing that power, Ms. Winehouse lived not like a member of a girl group but as one of the tragic rock stars of the eras before and after the time of the girl groups. This was a particularly devastating situation because, unlike the classic tale of the overnight celebrity who gets too much too fast, Ms. Winehouse appears to have arrived with her problems already manifest and obvious.
The interest in the early 1960s will continue. The success of the TV series "Mad Men" — which used one of Ms. Winehouse's songs for promotional purposes — has spurred a host of series from the same era. These shows are advertised with women in pillbox hats wearing pastel mod attire. It is easy to imitate a style. It is far more difficult to reinterpret a style with such conviction that it seems to re-write history.
After hearing the music of Amy Winehouse and considering her unique perspective, I hear the Shangri-las differently. I lament the loss of what work was to come. I hope the sordid details of death and the macabre coincidence of her dying at the same age of so many other artists will not prevent a serious consideration of her small but significant body of work.
Paul Mathews is the associate dean for academic affairs at the Peabody Conservatory of the Johns Hopkins University. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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