In Memoriam: Amy Winehouse

kimberlee rossi-fuchs returns to the site, remembering one of her favorite singers …

Due in part to her oft-publicized struggles with drugs, alcohol, and a host of other self-destructive behaviors, Amy Winehouse’s death in her London apartment on Saturday, July 23 registered as a surprise to barely no one. The fact that she apparently finally succumbed to her addictions at the magic age of twenty-seven only seeming to make her even more of a drug-addled cliché.

In the years since the 2007 U.S. debut of the stunning Back To Black, Winehouse quickly circled the drain from promising new talent to tabloid crackhead, photographed in various states of disarray, sometimes wandering the streets of her London neighborhood cracked out and clad in little more than her underwear, other times appearing in public with her face covered in open sores.

Despite the massive success of that breakthrough album, she never managed to successfully tour in support of it, often appearing on stage so drunk that she couldn’t remember her lyrics, getting into violent altercations with fans, or, simply canceling appearances altogether. Indeed, the public perception of Winehouse had become such that her passing last weekend seemed to many like the long-awaited punch line to what had become a meandering cruel joke and come Saturday afternoon, Facebook and Twitter were rife with the trite observation that perhaps she shouldn’t have said “no, no, no” to rehab after all.

Yet despite the several aborted trips to rehab, the increasingly disastrous performances, and the frequently embarrassing paparazzi shots, I really did harbor hope that Winehouse would pull it together to fully harvest her immense talent and so I was both surprised and truly saddened by her death. I was first introduced to Amy in late 2006 via Perez Hilton, who posted an audio clip of the now-famous “Rehab.” I was instantly intrigued by both the ridiculous catchiness of that Motown-throwback track and the singer’s striking look. With her myriad tattoos, exaggerated Cleopatra eyeliner, and massive beehive all supported by an impossibly tiny frame, Winehouse was an instant style icon, quickly serving as a muse for both Vogue Paris and Karl Lagerfeld’s Chanel runway.

While Amy’s vocal and personal style was a throwback to the 60s girl groups she clearly adored, by the time Back To Black hit in ’07, Christina Aguilera had already entered her Monroe-wannabe “Candy Man” era and the retro pin-up aesthetic was not a new trend. But whereas Aguilera came across as about as authentic as a sepia snapshot from a boardwalk old-timey photo booth, Winehouse breathed freshness into her retro-shtick, with a voice that seamlessly alternated between hard-edged rasp and songbird sweetness, a sublime blend of lived-in, world-weary blues, bratty hip-hop attitude, and sneering punk snarl.

While “Rehab” was her biggest US hit (the success of which simultaneously grew from and cemented her rebellious, almost gleefully self-destructive image), it was far from the best track on what was a truly brilliant album, as evidenced by follow-up singles such as the Supremes-worthy “Tears Dry on Their Own” and the lushly dark and passionate “Back To Black.”

For me, a large part of Back To Black’s appeal was its conceptual feel — in interviews, Winehouse was often quoted as attributing the inspiration for most of the album’s songs to her tumultuous relationship with on-again, off-again beau and fellow addict, Blake Civil-Fielder — and the album played as a twisted tale of addictions, both chemical and romantic in nature. Beneath the slick Mark Ronson production, however, what truly sold each song was Winehouse’s passion, her voice an endearing cry of both the romanticism and the hopelessness inherent to losing yourself in love for another or to one’s addictions.

As an audience, we were thus able to simultaneously relish the fruits of her passions and pity her for their futility. Ultimately, what saddens me the most about Amy Winehouse’s death isn’t the striking waste of talent or the shamefully small body of material she leaves behind (a scant two albums, the aforementioned Back To Black and her 2003, U.K.-only debut Frank, which although not nearly as great, definitely evidenced the beginnings of her later genius) but the fact that the general public will most likely remember her more for the disheveled, mascara-smeared, bloody ballet slipper paparazzi shots rather than for her all-too brief but nonetheless brilliant work she created in her short time on this earth.