Music: Amy Winehouse: A Queer Tribute
Crossposted with permission from Cannonballblog’s James Worsdale. James has been in mourning since the news broke of singer Amy Winehouse’s passing last weekend. Here’s his tribute.
My senior year of college, as one of my three Halloween costumes (I’m gay), I donned a beehive bouffant, white undershirt, cutoff jean shorts, banana yellow pumps and that dramatic smoky eye that is the pop cultural property of almost exclusively two women: Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, and Amy Winehouse. Like all of my obsessions, mine with the late crooner was one I continuously parodied, but like all of my parodies it is one that was lined with an intoxicating devotion that I longed to understand, inscribe meaning to and make sense of.
When people would laugh at me saying my favorite singer was Amy Winehouse, I’d joke that when she died I’d be inundated with texts because my fandom was excessive and notorious. But I don’t know that I ever thought it would actually happen, and I didn’t know how devastatingly futile it’d make me feel when that day came, how shocking it would feel despite the obvious warning signs.
Winehouse really only had one album. Though she released both 2003′s Frank and 2006′s Back to Black, the latter garnered and warranted more success and praise. Frank is, frankly, forgettable. But Back to Black is an incredible album that resonated so deeply with me and with so many others. And it is an album that I think resonates deeply with queer folk because of its lyrical content, Winehouse’s androgynous sartorial and vocal styling, and because of the heartbreak and beautiful tragedy that underlies all of its tracks.
Whether or not her death is of international importance or whether or not it’s hyperbolic to claim she changed pop music forever is not what I want to address (though I will briefly: her death matters because she’s an artist whose work spoke to and touched many people, and there’s a difference between someone whose music comes to define the times verses someone whose work defies it and thereafter shapes it. She falls into the latter category, in my opinion). What I want to express is how Back to Black is an album that embodies this experience of unrequited love, in all of its romance, agony and tragedy, an experience queer folk so often endure — I’d venture to say more so than heterosexual folks — and therefore can relate to on a very soulful and real level.
In the album’s titular track Amy moans,
He left no time to regret, kept his dick wet, with his same old safe bet. Me and my head high, and my tears dry, get on without my guy. You went back to what you knew, so far removed from all that we went through. And I tread a troubled track. My odds are stacked. I go back to black.
This sentiment of a love lost and of abandonment for something or someone else is one that so many queer folk have known and experienced personally, the embarking of a dalliance with a self-proclaimed straight person only to be left high and dry (sometimes literally) for an easier experience that doesn’t require strength or defiance or the perseverance of what we call love. And Amy knows better than anyone, love is a losing game, waking up alone while our tears dry on our own. He can only hold her for so long.
I know that by instilling this reading of Winehouse’s lyrics and influence I’m risking perpetuating the manipulatively and prejudicially represented stereotype that is the woebegone and warped queer person. But despite the fact that this is a stereotypical representation that so frequently misappropriates blame and effect of unrequited desire, it is an experience that is oftentimes very real to many queer folk in particular.
Winehouse’s music and subsequent death spoke to me in these terms. But it is also worth noting how effectively it’s been argued that her music and her image queered our concepts of race. Of course it is a white woman who ultimately profited off of this queering which is a huge shortcoming and almost discounting of any progress, many would say, (myself included…too often are white performers disproportionately lauded for appropriating black performance styles…Kreyashawn anyone?). But Back to Black as an album feels more like a homage to traditionally black musical genres and performers of a time past than an attempt to parody or cash in on them. In a discussion of Winehouse in a March 2008 issue of the New Yorker, Sasha Frere-Jones observes:
Pop has room for weird appropriations, even if they don’t always settle or become comfortable. Winehouse 2.0 works because of the number of different modes that she and her band pile up and the way that she resists definition. Ronson directs the band to stay firmly in the territory of Detroit and Memphis soul, but Winehouse is free to roam through Sarah Vaughan’s lower range and Lauryn Hill’s rapturous, disjunct leaps. Winehouse and her band play what sounds like a straight James Brown ballad from the fifties called “Me and Mr. Jones”; the Mr. in the title, though, is not a dapper ballroom dancer or long-lost love–it’s the rapper Nas, whom she claims she can’t be kept apart from. The lyrics are genuinely obscure; someone has made Winehouse miss a “Slick Rick concert.” Later, she sings that ” ‘side from Sammy, you’re my best black Jew.” Sammy is almost certainly Mr. Davis, Jr., but the “you” isn’t likely Nas, as he isn’t Jewish. Go figure.
The greater public’s, music critic’s, and industry’s racialization of her and her music (not to mention her racialization of herself) is more difficult terrain to tread and one I don’t honestly feel qualified to discuss (but I’d love to hear your take on it).
But for me, as a fag, I will miss Amy for her defiance of categorical imperatives, for her embracing of tragedy as truth, and for her deep understanding and embodiment, even if accidental, of a big piece of my queer experience.
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