October 2006 may go down as one of the all time great album release months for music. This millennium anyway. The entire year of 1977 is untouchable. Seriously. Pick a month (February – Ed). Ok, here’s the February 1977 playlist. Say goodbye to the next 34 minutes of your life.
A random month and we have one of the greatest albums of all time, one of the greatest debut albums of all time, the first punk album of all time and one of the most influential guitar-led albums of all time. Unbelievable.
And I say that October 2006 matches it. You have arguably John Legend’s best album, the sophomore follow up from The Killers – I still remember hearing When You Were Young for the first time and immediately phoning three different friends – My Chemical Romance and the star-making hit Lost Without You by Robin Thicke. All of these are very good. But none of them was as era defining as Back To Black by Amy Winehouse. I swear the following is true. That album is so good, I bought 3 copies the week it came out and handed two of them to some of my friends. I remember walking up to the counter in HMV and seeing the confusion in the cashier’s eye and I knew his reaction meant that he hadn’t listened to the album. If he had, he would’ve known I was being entirely reasonable.
I was reminded of October 2006 because today is the 7th anniversary of Amy Winehouse’s death. People like to reminisce about the ‘old days’. It used to make me laugh when my Year 11 form would reminisce about back in the day when they would talk about 2010, but it speaks to the power of nostalgia. I miss 2006. It was a year before the first iPhone, Facebook was only 2 years old, Twitter was born, Donald Trump was playing meteorologist – either that or taking a definitive stance on his favourite X-Man (Really? We’re making “Stormy” jokes? I thought you were above this – Ed), beer was cheap and the best season of any television programme was released, don’t @ me.
And yet, Winehouse was bigger than all of it. Back to Black absolutely stands the test of time. I thought it was one of the best albums of all time when I first heard it and I believe it more fervently today. The interplay of lyrics, production and her voice combine to create a piece of art that, 12 years later, sounds like an accessible futuristic throwback piece of high art. Hearing it, I’m transported back, walking down the town with my headphones and MP3 player, with no phone attached to it, the album on repeat and never ever skipping a song. I loved getting near the end of the album because He Can Only Hold Her was the penultimate song and it was my favourite – quick tangent, this was a huge month for whoever owned the catalogue of music for The Icemen, with both Winehouse and Legend sampling their 1966 song She’s a fox on their albums. I imagine the catalogue owner sipping a Daiquiri on a beach somewhere in the Caribbean, hearing either of the songs, smiling and ordering another drink from a waiter.
I started this post thinking I would talk about how 2006 was a better time, a purer time, with the music of Back to Black as an accompaniment, but it isn’t true. The media hounded, harassed and humiliated Winehouse. She was honest in her struggles with her appearance and they would put her on the front cover with pictures taken from long lens cameras that showed her every flaw. Back to Black captures the human experience perfectly. Rehab captures the hopelessness of feeling depressed and people trying to heal you on a timeline that benefits them and not you. You know I’m no Good is one of the best examples of how people who are depressed make bad decisions that hurt others and lead to self loathing. The whole album is a monument to the importance of relationships. More specifically it is about how destructive bad relationships can be. Amy’s relationships with her romantic lovers, her father and the press were utterly destructive.
But us consumers don’t get off easily, either. If you haven’t seen Amy, the 2015 documentary directed by Asif Kapadia, I would recommend that you do. The most difficult thing for me, as a fan of her work, is the section towards the end where a couple of fans approach her father for a picture with a clearly unwell Amy. They apologise for “bothering” her and Winehouse, displaying the perception that is present in her lyrics, responds with “Listen, if you were that sorry, then you wouldn’t” before trailing off. What makes it difficult is I genuinely don’t know if I would have asked for that picture. And you don’t either. Winehouse was the product and we consumed her. The newspapers wouldn’t have put her on their front pages if we didn’t buy them; those long lensed cameraman are only employed because their pictures generate money.
Amy Winehouse was 27 when she died. The bitterest irony was that she died at the height of the phone hacking scandal. As Paul Willis wrote for CNN at the time:
Winehouse’s death inadvertently took some of the heat off News International, the British arm of [Rupert Murdoch’s] media business: The troubled star was frequently a target of the tabloid culture that Murdoch helped to foster
Hadley Freeman, columnist at The Guardian was more cutting, acerbically describing the media reaction to Winehouse’s death as:
a collective orgasm of prurient crocodile tears by dying. At last we can wheel out those pre-written columns as we photograph her body being wheeled out of her house!
Blaming the press is appropriate. It is also incomplete. Winehouse was let down by the press, yes, but none of us gets to claim that we are guilt-free. Look at the treatment of Raheem Sterling or Mesut Özil in football or singers like Britney Spears or Christina Aguilera 10 years ago. We treat famous people as commodities, as a raw material or product that can be used and discarded. Winehouse’s death transformed her from a star to an icon – like Monroe, Joplin, Hendrix and Cobain. Those stars’ deaths prove that our collective sorrow is temporary; if it wasn’t we wouldn’t repeat the same cycle, treating stars as commodities. As Winehouse pointed out, when talking to all of us, “Listen, if you were that sorry, then you wouldn’t…”