Substance abuse is a shared topic that many celebrities endure, especially when their actions are clearly publicized. Amy Winehouse was a key figure that was exposed to overwhelming paparazzi in the wake of her recklessness. Her fame and attention made her a crackhead, an anorexic, and a victim to so many other illnesses. Being a well-known singer-songwriter, the English artist was a constant name running in tabloids across the world – her experiences and her spotlight, as someone with mental illness, eating disorders, and addiction, made her lifestyle a hot commodity in newspapers in the mid-2000s. Her battles with substance abuse started in 2005, two years after her debut album Frank (2003) was released. Winehouse’s experimental choices led to an overbearing amount of media attention, posed on herself, her family, and everyone surrounding her.
Though the main factors toward her addictions remain a mystery, her family claim that her heavy drug habits were influenced by the death of her grandmother, in mid-2006. Additionally, Nick Godwyn, Winehouse’s first manager, believed that her drug abuse started when she met her then-husband, Blake Fielder-Civil. In a 2008 interview with The Sunday Times, he shared his thoughts on her addiction and Fielder-Civil’s influence:
Amy changed overnight after she met Blake. She just sounded completely different. Her personality became more distant. And it seemed to me like that was down to the drugs. When I met her she smoked weed but she thought the people who took class-A drugs were stupid. She used to laugh at them.
Nick Godwyn, (Sandall, n.p.).
Not only did all this affect her image, but it also affected her work as a singer. Winehouse was known as the type of singer that would cancel more shows than she played, have violent outbreaks while high, and have a critically damaged physique with drugs that eradicated her. The drugs shrinked her, took over every aspect of her life, leading to her death from alcohol poisoning in 2011.
Amy Winehouse Opens Up About Substance Abuse in Sophomore Album
Back To Black (2006) is Winehouse’s second album, and it became the most popular seller in the U.K. in 2007. She sold 9 million copies, which made her album one of the biggest sellers of the 21st century. “Rehab” became the most iconic song, which to this day, still gratifies listeners. As of 2017, “Rehab” has been played on Spotify 86 million times, spanning a listenership far greater than any other artist of the mid-2000s. Amy Winehouse’s sophomore album Back To Black (2006) reveals to fans the intensity of her illnesses through her stylistic sound, metaphorical lyricism, and meaning between the lines. Her songs represent an anecdote, an added puzzle piece to her complicated story, which revels in her perceived victimage and self-deprecation. The album was effective financially, and gave listeners a greater awareness about her justifiable actions and emotions in the wake of her countless abuses.
Amy Winehouse’s Stylistic Sound & Musical Taste
Best known for her radical genre switching and raspy voice, Amy Winehouse did not disappoint in her second album. Her contralto vocals, similar to Adele and Whitney Houston’s vocal range, meshed perfectly with her genre mixes. Utilizing soul, rhythm and blues, and jazz, her voice made the conversational aspect of her album narrative more appealing and inviting to the ear. Soul, R&B, and jazz typically associate songs regarding relationships, human experiences, and deeper meanings. The harmony between Winehouse and the brass-filled instrumentals make for a more cohesive, and listen-able, album, one that listeners can clearly understand the concepts of each song.
Though her low, raspy voice in collaboration of different genres was easier to process, the quality was never normalized or quantified when being critiqued. Winehouse used these multiple genres to build her own. Arguably, the stylistic notions of the album, auditorily, were in a middle style. The style of the album was ornate because of the switching of genres. However, the collection of songs had simple input contextually. The album decorated and highlighted the content and significances of each song in a way that was innovative, clear, honest, and irresistible to listeners. However, the magnificence of the album is down-casted because the instrumentals are met with familiar speech, very much reflected in Winehouse’s blunt voice. This does not take away any interest, though. The style would be grand if there was a distinct difference in the sound; for example, if the jazzy background was met with an opera-like voice, that would generate a greater, more radical response.
Amy Winehouse Presents Her Lifestyle Through Lyricism
Winehouse’s second album exceeds expectations with the graphic yet truthful lyricism following each rhythmic tune. After analyzing the lyricism, metaphorically and literally, it is clear to state that the album extensively discloses topics regarding addiction, relationships, and depression.
The span of Winehouse’s alcohol and drug problems can be heard in her singles “Rehab”, “Just Friends”, “Some Unholy War”, and “Addicted”. In her first song off the album, “Rehab”, Winehouse generates a rebellious, independent anthem that emulates her denial in going into rehabilitation for her alcoholism. At the time, Winehouse’s label when the album was in development encouraged her to spend ten weeks in rehab. She declined this offer, and in turn, created a top-notch single. In one verse, she nonchalantly rhymes “It’s not just my pride/It’s ‘til these tears have dried,” which allude to her depression, loneliness, and struggles with handling emotions. She opts out of rehab and describes her reasons to drink in the song.
“Some Unholy War” is the ninth single off of Back To Black (2006). In this minor key tune, Winehouse explains her then future-husband Blake Fielder-Civil’s love and addictions. The song is hazy with swinging guitar riffs, that very much complement her undeniable support for Fielder-Civil, no matter the consequences. In the freeform verse, she sings, “At his side and drunk on pride/We wait for the blow,” which emphasizes his heavy drug use without much care of other judgment. “Blow” is also slang for cocaine, a high which can be very addictive. Also addictive is “Addicted”, Winehouse’s eleventh and last song off the album. She shares similar thoughts with drug abuse. The moral of the song is that Winehouse does not want her flatmate’s boyfriend to steal her marijuana. Both friendly yet prompt, the singer explains that her drug use is a need rather than a want. She whines “Don’t make no difference if I end up alone/I’d rather have myself and smoke my homegrown/It’s got me addicted, does more than any d–k did.”
Another area of interest found in Back To Black (2006) is Amy Winehouse’s ongoing conversation about her relationships. Several of her songs victimize her, and make her feel like she is not the one at fault for her behaviors or experiences. This is most pertinent in her songs “Me & Mr. Jones” (explicit), “Just Friends” (explicit), and “He Can Only Hold Her”. In her third song “Me & Mr. Jones”, she references hip-hop artist Nas, whom she had a romantic relationship with. Nas is a well-known artist, and their relationship took a wielding spotlight. In her lyrics “What kind of f–kery is this?/Nobody stands between me and my man,” the storyline alludes to possessiveness, insecurity, and an overprotection of this relationship. Her behavior around him and other men creates the assumption that she is reckless and dangles on whoever she is with.
In the fourth song following, “Just Friends” is a rhetorical romance piece where Winehouse questions the current standing of this anonymous relationship. She sings, “I wanna touch you/But that just hurts,” where she recollects memories that makes her wonder if there was ever something more, beyond the friendship boundaries. The softer, eerie entrance of the song then jumps to a beat heavy with reggae, making the tone of the lyrics aching, bittersweet, and mysterious. “He Can Only Hold Her” is her tenth single off the album. The song is another conversational piece, one led head-on by a thumping drum and Winehouse’s sultry voice. The song brings the idea that she is no good for this man. In the single she sings, “She’s so vacant her soul is taken/He thinks “What’s she running from?/Now how can he have her heart/When it got stole?” The moral is about a woman’s feelings being taken and moved between men, in a way that is objectifiable and selfish.
Amy Winehouse revels in her self-pity with her singles “Back To Black” (explicit), “Love Is A Losing Game”, and “Wake Up Alone”. Much of her mental illness as a depressed individual is because of her daunting and broken relationships. However, these songs signal a greater focus on her insights rather than the situations themselves.
In the iconic fifth song “Back To Black”, Winehouse takes this angry, piano-driven ballad by exuding her pain after an intense breakup. In the chorus she says, “We only said goodbye with words/I died a hundred times/You go back to her and I go back to/I go back to us.” The bridge proceeds into a dark period, where she repeats, “Black, black, black…” to describe the unwavering hurt she dealt with. At first, the single was a bit redeeming in outlook. The first verse says, “Me and my head high/And my tears dry/Get on without my guy,” to emphasize that Winehouse does want to move on. It is a matter of moving on, and taking the time to heal.
In the song following, “Love Is A Losing Game”, Winehouse continues her victimizing disposition in this aching single. She metaphorizes love as a “losing game”, a “losing hand”, and a “fate resigned”, to show that love may not be a lasting thing forever. With Winehouse’s experiences, she takes this song by moaning and groaning about the messy aftermath of a relationship gone wrong. Lastly, “Wake Up Alone” is Winehouse’s eighth single off the album. This song is the most significant in telling Winehouse’s side of the story. Her lonesome, raspy voice mixed with the minor keys make for an aching piece to listen to. Her most powerful lyrics are in the beginning verse, where she sings, “I stay up clean the house/At least I’m not drinking/Run around just so I don’t have to think about thinking/That silent sense of content/That everyone gets/Just disappears soon as the sun sets.” She speaks about her actions, and explains that she tries to keep herself busy in the wake of her depression.
Tenors, Vehicles, and Commonplaces
The tenor in her lyricism are the feelings involved in each narrative. Winehouse generates an effective tone that has listeners feeling pain and hazed when listening to her songs. Every subject is identified and recognized well into each song, and Amy Winehouse presents the lyrics in such a way that makes them a significant influence in her life. The diction, figures of speech, the subject associated, are supported by its vehicles. Though each song varies in context, the main vehicle is her own thoughts. Each narrative is a story, yet she continues to bring the story back on herself. Each song reflects her experiences, which give her a chance to expose her true feelings, perspectives, and her behavior for what it is. Commonplaces are enveloped in reckless drug use, relationships, lifestyle means to shadow feelings, and a disappearing identity. Other songs like “You Know I’m No Good” and “Tears Dry On Their Own” (explicit) also share similar concepts about relationships, yet they deviate more toward Winehouse’s internal look about her role in such situations. Throughout the album narrative, her songs are constantly directed back to her as narrator. Her input is always there, and in most cases, she acts as the victim to each scenario. This may be due to insecurity and guilt amid her behavior and made decisions over time.
Reception and Effectiveness
Back To Black (2006) is an honest, thought-provoking album that many listeners identify with, because of its deep, significant topics – addiction, relationships, and the state of depression in wake of these experiences. Many believed that Amy Winehouse was detrimental and reckless in the celebrity spotlight. She was always a headline and a cause of conversation. A part of that came many critics hating on her behavior and her illnesses. In a 2015 Pitchfork article, Kayleigh Hughes contributes her thoughts on Winehouse’s eating disorder: “Amy Winehouse’s eating disorder wasn’t simply “yet another bad decision.” The environmental and genetic factors at play in Winehouse’s childhood and adolescence put her at extremely high risk for developing an eating disorder, and the lack of early intervention, education, and stable guidance meant that the disease was able to firmly take root and flourish as she was put in higher- and higher-stress situations.” (Hughes, n.p.).
In contrast, Winehouse and her work has followed with critics, condemning her for her identity rather than her personality. Music journalist Robert Christgau called her “a self-aggrandizing self-abuser who’s taken seriously because she makes a show of soul” (Christgau, n.p.). Her work with remain what it is, as it is a part of her legacy as an English singer. Her demise was sudden and a consequence to her actions and addictions. With her album, listeners now and in the future, will be able to identify with it in a way that helps them heal, listen, and understand. Her singles take the classic ideas of addiction, depression, and broken relationships, and shapes it into a beautiful collection that glamorizes, idealizes, and constitutes the feelings associated with these experiences.
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“Back to Black by Amy Winehouse.” Genius. Genius Media Group, 01 Feb. 2006. Web. 16 May 2017.
Hughes, Kayleigh. “We Need to Talk About Amy Winehouse’s Eating Disorder and Its Role In Her Death.” Pitchfork. Pitchfork Media Inc., 06 Aug. 2015. Web. 16 May 2017.
“Lily Allen: The Same Everygirl After All.” Robert Christgau. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 May 2017.
Sandall, Robert. “Can Amy Winehouse Be Saved?” Times Online. The Sunday Times, 27 July 2008. Web. 16 May 2017.
Winehouse, Amy. Back To Black. Amy Winehouse. 2006. Spotify. Web. 16 May 2017. Retrieved from https://open.spotify.com/album/097eYvf9NKjFnv4xA9s2oV.
Feature Photo By (Amy Winehouse/Official Website).