Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Jewish Princess of Soul

by Polly Bresnick 

In Amy Winehouse's "You Know I'm No Good," she laments in her signature seductive contralto:

I cheated myself like I knew I would. 

I told you, that I was trouble.
You know that I'm no good.

It goes without saying that rehab wasn't the answer. Friends suggested she try it, but she said "no no no," insisting that it didn't work for her. (As the lyrics of the song imply, a creepy doctor did more harming than healing: He said 'I just think you're depressed, Kiss me, yeah baby, and go rest.')

If we interpret Amy Winehouse's lyrics as even loosely autobiographical, we can find a pattern. She seems to have desperately wanted to be good (a common enough soul trope), though as hard as she tried, being good just didn't come naturally to her, it didn't seem to be her greatest talent. 

What she lacked in sainthood ability, folks seem to agree, she made up for in music-making talent. Try listening to any of her songs (especially the ones on her second album that feature backing from the Dap-Kings) without breaking into a mini-hustle in your seat. Good luck not snapping a finger or quick-clapping along with Amy on the one. Her album Back to Black led to six Grammy Award nominations and five wins, tying the then record for the most wins by a female artist in a single night. She was the first British female to win five Grammys. In 2012, Winehouse was listed at number 26 on VH1's 100 Greatest Women In Music. She may have been a pipsqueak physically, but her impact on the world of female musicians and fans was big. Like, bigger than her hair and her attitude combined. Of course it was — she sang with delicious smoky soul reminiscent of Etta James and Sarah Vaughan, she rocked a Bride-of-Frankenstein beehive. Understandably, it's these characteristics that immortalize her, and also maybe her tattoos. What not everyone knows is that she dreamed of one day becoming a nice Jewish cook like her bubbie, a real berryer who made her own gefiltefish from scratch, no lie.

Referring to Winehouse, Sarah Silverman may or may not have quipped, "She is Jewish, right? If she isn’t, someone should tell her face." This is kind of funny. Ms. Winehouse's face did look Jewish, whatever that means (because it was). But the fact that her jewishness was in question makes sense too, right? She was so cool, so brassy and bold, so soulful, so black. Her face, for the few readers who don't know, also happens to have been quite pretty.

If there's any question about whether Silverman's comment was complimentary, I'll gladly admit that I wouldn't mind if that astutely observant woman publicly insisted that, according to my face, I'm probably Jewish.

Years before her Bat Mitzvah, as an innocent pre-teen, little Amy Winehouse — her nails bitten to the quicks, her baseball cap pulled low over her dark eyes, and her Disney World T-shirt hanging loose around her shapeless torso— started a hip hop duo with her friend and called it Sweet 'n Sour. They fancied themselves the "little white Jewish Salt 'n Pepa." I was about that same age when my fascination with hip hop was initiated by Lil' Kim. I diligently memorized Kim's best phrases, the ones I knew I shouldn't say aloud in public. That girl's aggressive power was irresistible. Many years later, I teamed with Lena Sradnick to form Mami Tsunami, a badass team of girl rappers. We battled the boy team. Why do Jewish girls want to do this?

Are Hebrew prayers like raps? They're not really. I think it's more a symptom of this (and I'm allowed to make the following half-hearted generalization because I'm describing my own cultural subset): cultural Jews are characterized by their bookishness, their lack of athletic coordination, and their timid nature. Hip hop presents the opposite qualities: loud, irreverent, physical, aggressive. And teenage girls (Jewish or otherwise) like to be exactly who they aren't. Soul music has all the brassy power of hip-hop with an added admittance of emotional vulnerability. So it's no surprise to me that after Sweet n Sour, Amy Winehouse continued on to be a Jewish princess of soul.

She sings with intimidating authority about being vulnerable, about making mistakes, about wishing she knew better than to make the same mistakes over and over again. This may be at the heart of her appeal to me. She admits that she's kind of a mess, that regret is a familiar friend, but in a powerful voice that belies all that. It's a folded version girl-power. She's fed up with her naive girlishness, even as she makes great soul music out of it. At the risk of sounding like an after-school special, maybe music was her way of conquering all the frustration about mistakes and the difficulty of learning her lesson, maybe it was her way of keeping the upper hand. Love is obviously a losing game, right? We all know this, but it's not about to stop anyone from falling in love.


"You Know I'm No Good" mp3
by Amy Winehouse, 2006.
available on Back to Black

"Tears Dry Up On Their Own" mp3
by Amy Winehouse, 2006.
available on Back to Black


Anonymous said...

no comments yet????

well, you're right, she was great. i was under the impression for some time that she was a born-again helen shapiro, but actually poor little helen was given songs to sing that she couldn't begin to understand, and once she stopped being a teenage wonder, nobody cared to find out what else she might have been able to do. maybe she would hav matured into an amy winehouse. amy's stuff was wonderful, pity she had to abort her trajectory in mid-flight....

Anonymous said...

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