British singer Amy Winehouse is not a nice Jewish girl. And it’s not just a question of the tattoos. Nor is it her positively epic boozing. (Her father, a London cabdriver, claims that she is not an alcoholic, because she does not drink every day. Perhaps. But there was that really embarrassingly drunken television performance, since immortalized on the Internet, with Charlotte Church, of all people.) Did she once belt a fan at a club? Maybe. But in the end it’s Winehouse’s unblinking honesty, her unrepentant sexuality and her genius for creative expletive that would make you think twice about bringing her home to meet the folks. As she tells her lover in the slinky second song on her equally slinky second album, “Back to Black,” she is simply “no good.”
Except, of course, she really is awfully good. If you don’t trust the commercial success and the awards she’s garnered in the United Kingdom — including her recent BRIT Award for best solo female artist — listen to an import copy of her first CD, “Frank” or, better still, to “Back to Black.” Unlike anodyne jazz-ish stylists such as Norah Jones, or tastefully wholesome white soul singers such as Joss Stone, Winehouse is all edge and voice. And she can write songs that showcase both.
“Frank” has attitude to spare. In “Stronger Than Me,” the first single from that album, Winehouse complains about her lover’s emotional weakness (“Cause I’ve forgotten all of young love’s joy/Feel like a lady, and you my lady boy”) and goes on to ask him if he is gay. This is provocative, to be sure, but lyrically it is not enough to make even a minor splash. Along with “F**k Me Pumps” (whose title says it all), “Stronger Than Me” is probably the best song on that uneven album, because its meandering melody resolves itself nicely into a hook. But in the end, beyond words and music, “Stronger Than Me” works because of Winehouse’s supple and surprising voice. In a blind taste test, I have found it very easy to fool several friends into thinking that Winehouse is black, American and much older than her (now) 23 years.
Winehouse was still in her teens when she cut “Frank.” She has since claimed that she cannot listen to the album. Truth be told, the jazz-inflected production on that disc can get very annoying; some of the songs never do coalesce, and you sometimes wish that Winehouse would just hit the damn note already and stop messing around.
“Back to Black” does not suffer from any of those problems. It is musically much more direct than “Frank” and thus spares the listener all that album’s unnecessary busyness. “Back to Black” draws its musical coordinates straight from 1960s girl groups. From first bars of the rollicking and wonderfully intransigent gospel-soul of “Rehab” through the slower “Love Is a Losing Game,” which might well be one of the better songs that Burt Bacharach and Hal David never wrote, the straightforward pop demand for a good hook keeps the melodies from wandering. Winehouse’s vocals are also more disciplined on “Back to Black,” more focused on demonstrating her power and emotional range.
Although “Back to Black” contains a nod or two to the Supremes, its tutelary genius is really Phil Spector, especially in the title track. There is also more than a touch of Dusty Springfield thrown in, as a tribute, no doubt, to the best English interpreter of American soul that the 1960s produced. Nevertheless, the album is not about antiquarian pleasures. The care that went into this nuanced evocation of that golden age does not mean that Winehouse has sacrificed even the tiniest bit of her rather aggressively contemporary sensibility. In fact, one of the album’s smarter moves is to run that sensibility straight into the musical conventions of the past. This is one of the reasons that “Rehab” is such an infectious tune. This is also why I can’t get “Me and Mr. Jones” out of my head. In that song, Winehouse sings a gloriously unprintable putdown of a boyfriend against the shimmery and no-longer innocent background of a doo-wop chorus. It’s funny, and you can dance to it. You just can’t play it on the radio.
American listeners might not realize that Winehouse’s accent is thick North London and recognizably Jewish. So, while she has been grafting a rap attitude onto ’60s soul, she has also added a distinctly Jewish touch to hip hop. Whatever else she is, Winehouse is a strong, somewhat pushy and sharp-tongued woman, the kind who delights in that fine Yiddish sport of cutting pretensions down to size. Women of this ilk used to be called “brassy,” and it was not always a compliment. But Winehouse wears it well, in no small part because, like her great talent, her vulnerabilities and her flaws are so clearly visible.
Train wrecks make good copy, and for any number of reasons the British press just loves Winehouse’s burps and lurches. But to worry about her weight or her drinking or her drug use is less interesting in the long run than to see what she does with her problems. There is something bracing and maybe even new in her ability to match unflinching vulgarity with real sophistication. So, sure, sure, “Back to Black” is a fine album. More importantly, though, “Back to Black” shows that Winehouse is turning into an artist to watch. No, she is most decidedly not a nice Jewish girl. And that, of course, is the whole blessed point.
David Kaufmann teaches literature at George Mason University.