Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Whine House

I recently read in Rolling Stone a description of Amy Winehouse as "Etta James reincarnated", which is a remarkably ignorant comparison for two reasons. First, because Etta James is still alive (and still performing and recording). Second, because I don't think Amy Winehouse is half the singer that Etta James is (in terms of the physical, emotional, and tonal range of their voices).

When I tried to google the reference, I discovered comparisons between Winehouse and many classic soul, jazz and R&B singers: Billie Holiday, Esther Phillips, Dinah Washington, Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughan, Ruth Brown, Ella Fitzgerald, Ronnie Spector, Mary Wells, Mary Weiss, Shirley Bassey, Aretha Franklin, and even Janis Joplin. Clearly, Winehouse doesn't sound like all of these singers; they don't even sound like each other. I would probably agree most with the Esther Phillips and Shirley Bassey comparisons, in terms of Winehouse's brassy, sometimes nasal tone.

Some of the comparisons are probably based on the persona that Winehouse has cultivated, through her lyrics and her public appearances (independent, occasionally lewd, often intoxicated). That would be the only reason to compare her to voices as dissimilar as the artful Billie Holiday and the artless Janis Joplin. Other comparisons may be intended to convey that Winehouse's style is closer to older performers than to the melismatic Mariah Carey and Mary J. Blige (though Winehouse has been compared to Blige, again more likely based on lifestyle than singing style).

I don't blame Winehouse for her press, except to the extent that she encourages the public's perception of her. It's truly the fault of music writers who make lazy and inept comparisons (and they call bloggers lazy...). Whoever called Back to Black "a marvelous debut that would do Etta James proud" was ignorant of the fact that it isn't a debut album. The rapturous reception that Amy Winehouse has received raises other questions: why do people get so excited when a white performer sounds black? Or when a "skinny" singer has a "big" voice?

I think writers are also encouraged to make these comparisons based on the musical backing that producer Mark Ronson created for the Winehouse album. Yes, it sounds like classic Motown. Sure, that's an admirable technical achievement. But is Back to Black the equal of the classic recordings that it tries to evoke? If not, why listen to it when the originals are readily available? It's the same question that comes to my mind when artists do a tribute album or a cover. Why bother, unless you're going to reinterpret the original, add something different to it, or at least bring the original artist to the attention of younger listeners?

And that may ultimately be the point. Amy Winehouse and Mark Ronson may prove to be more than the sum of their influences, and the praise they receive may encourage fans to seek out the sources of their inspiration. If that search has led you here today, here are two such classics. I believe Etta recorded "Loving Arms" while she was in rehab, so don't say no, no, no. It's a song that I would like to have played at my funeral (which I haven't planned, other than the playlist). Oh, and no headstone.

Etta James: Loving Arms
Esther Phillips: (Don't Put) No Headstone on My Grave


At 4/17/2007 7:54 AM , Blogger bitterandrew said...

I really need to keep up better with my blog reading. This is an excellent analysis of the clouds of insane hype surrounding Ms. Winehouse and her career at the moment.

At 4/17/2007 10:32 AM , Blogger jon manyjars said...

There weren't much to keep up with in these parts for the last few weeks, but thank you for the kind words. I am a fan of Andrew's writing at the music blog Armagideon Time, even if I don't understand most of the comic book references. I was more into comic artists like George Herriman, Walt Kelly, Saul Steinberg and Giovanetti.


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