Keith Richards Is Still Alive
"It serves to condition me, and smoothen my kinks/Despite my frustration with the way you think," Amy Winehouse sang on her 2003 debut Frank, finding the missing vocal link between hip-hop and Eartha Kitt, scatting like a 60s jazz star over electronic drumbeats. The lyric, like many of her songs, details the masochistic underbelly of a broken relationship, but does so in a clear-eyed and even darkly funny way (there's a fascinating tonal balance in Winehouse's work: you never know whether you should laugh or cry, and the singer doesn't seem sure, either).
Maybe the lyric also works to describe the music business? An article in Monday's USA TODAY sported the headline, "Amy Winehouse's sobering transformation could hurt her musical credibility"; the generally reliable music reporter/critic Edna Gunderson quoted numerous reporters and music business execs who mournfully shook their heads, tut-tutted the soul singer's recent drug problems, and spoke of the long-term damage her year-long escapades might do to her career (My favorite quote comes from Tom O'Neil, who the article describes as a "columnist for awards insider TheEnvelope.com," and who notes, ""Amy's arguably the breakout artist of the year, but the music industry is a drug-sensitive world. Her rebuke of rehab may seem cool over the airwaves, but it strikes a scary chord with Grammy voters. If they excuse it as part of the back story of great artists like Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin, she still has the problem of being British." (emphasis mine). Wow, moralism and xenophobia-- a gossip columnist two-fer!)
Gunderson is a good reporter, and I have no doubt her article reflects a general sentiment in the entertainment business, so this is no reflection on her work when I say: I'm calling "bullshit."
Set aside the rhetorical slip of the headline, which falsely equates musical credibility and commercial success (the latter seems the real focus of the article). Set aside the considerable merit of Winehouse's record, Back To Black, which I think is one of the three best albums of the year (along with Springsteen's Magic and Kanye West's Graduation). Instead, just ponder the hypocrisy of the industry's reaction. This is a business and surrounding media culture that continues to valorize Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Keith Moon and Janis Joplin; that's romanticized outlaw culture, pseudo-bohemian ethos and the most cliched forms of adolescent rebellion against The Man; that looks up to Keith Richards, for crying out loud, as a truth-talking elder statesman! (Richards and Cobain are really just two sides of the same rhetorical coin: rock culture needs the romantic myth of the young death to maintain its hipster credibility, and the shockingly lengthy survivalism of Richards to prove that one can do all this stuff and still be productive. The two men allow Jann Wenner to have his authenticity cake and eat it, too). Pop songs by everyone from the Beatles to Snoop Dog have referenced and celebrated drugs, and this same culture has either celebrated, looked the other way or wink-winked, nudged-nudged in laddish approval at these artists' "daring."
And now, this culture's going to take its anti-drug anger out on Winehouse? Sorry, but I'm not buying the concern, or the career advice (which seems to fit what one pundit called "The Jon Benet Ramsey Rule," where we talk and talk and talk about this stuff, then turn around and say how "sad" and "horrible" it all is, and isn't it sad this poor girl is being exploited?). Winehouse clearly has a lot of problems, and she definitely needs to get help for them, before she really does end up a tragic case. I'm not excusing her self-destructive behavior or overlooking her serious addictions to drugs, violence and self-abuse. But the disingenuous paternalism of the article is equally off-putting, as are the double standards it implies still exist in the music business.