Some songwriters are universal. Leonard Cohen, Lennon/McCartney, and jazz icons like Cole Porter and George Gershwin have all become part of the collective songbook. But even rarer is the icon who's so precise in their songwriting, their voice and arrangements that no one else can leave a mark on their work. Some artists are uncoverable – and Amy Winehouse is one of them. She lived a mere 27 years, but her true influence is only just beginning to be felt.
It seems unimaginable, but Back to Black was released a decade ago, on October 27, 2006. With all that's transpired since, it's easy to forget that Amy Winehouse was, first and foremost, a great songwriter. Frank, her 2003 debut, was a straight-up jazz album – just with more cussing and programmed drums than you'd expect. But Back to Black was an astonishing leap, even to those who were already paying attention.
Genre exercises wear thin quickly; the wave of British soul soundalikes in Amy's wake have come and gone. But Back to Black's aged spectacularly. It's a simple concept: songs and arrangements inspired by classic girl groups and soul, written and sung with equal parts reverence and irreverence for the past. Amy was no 60s revivalist – she was telling new, original stories. She quickly became a muse for rappers – Jay Z, Ghostface Killah, Yasiin Bey. They recognised a kindred spirit – because hip-hop, too, reinterprets the past through sampling. But most significantly, Nas – one of the most detail-oriented songwriters in all hip-hop – inspired "Me & Mr Jones", a song about how life gets in the way of the most important thing: music.
Amy would spit lyrics with wit and venom, like a rapper herself. "What kind of fuckery are we? / Nowadays you don't mean dick to me" – and her backing vocals echo, hilariously, "diiiick tooo me!" It was a not-so-subtle fuck-you to the way the British press marketed the "next big things" of jazz – Norah Jones, Jamie Cullum. But Amy Winehouse? You couldn't play her at dinner parties. In her hands, jazz wasn't respectable – but it was alive.
The most iconic songs can be the most difficult to talk about. Great songwriting is invisible: it weaves together emotional, lyrical, musical, personal, even cultural narratives effortlessly. But that's precisely why it needs to be deconstructed. On Back to Black's three biggest songs, Amy Winehouse gives us three complex, conflicted versions of herself.
What do you hear when you listen to "Rehab" in 2016? The song took on a certain irony after Amy's first stint in rehab in early 2008, and turned morbid after her death. But "Rehab" will never be a sad song. It's irrepressible.
"Rehab" was the perfect first single, because it introduced you to every part of Amy Winehouse: the person, the artist, and her demons. It was a personal narrative, but she wrote it with total self-assurance, as if she was already famous – and so it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. She was no longer some young jazz prodigy – she was Amy Winehouse, the unlikeliest of popstars. She was defiantly not demure – not in interviews or live performances. She was a complete musician and a tabloid fixture, and she dared you to reconcile the two, even as she struggled with it herself.
"Rehab" is about humour as not just a coping mechanism, but as human nature. The tragedy of Amy Winehouse is not that she didn't know better; it's that she was always self-aware. In the verses, she's repentant; in the choruses, defiant. The song goes around in circles, a vicious cycle of addiction – one section always leads to the other. Is it ultimately sad, or witty? Which image of Amy Winehouse wins out – the songwriter, or the victim?
On "You Know I'm No Good", wit isn't enough. The lyrics are a short story unto themselves: three encounters with her man, each one a little sadder than the last. Amy encapsulates the arc of a poisonous relationship with so few words, in the language of her speaking voice. "Run out to meet you, chips and pitta", she sings in the second verse – it's a detail that would never appear in the idealised fantasy of a soul song, except one written by a modern British woman living in Camden.
Amy Winehouse was a storyteller, but she was more than a confessional singer-songwriter. Her narratives had the wit and observational detail of comedy– and as the cliché goes, all comedians are severely depressed, right? But comedy, like any kind of performance, is a form of catharsis. We can laugh out of relief, but also to stop us from crying. "You Know I'm No Good" finds the humour in sadness, and in the song's third verse, the bitter irony in a moment of joy. Amy paints a portrait of what it's like to live with trauma. On a good day, it's manageable – she can even write songs about it – but she might never truly be okay. But then those peppy horns kick in, all verve and humour, and they light up her misery.
On "Back to Black", Amy gives up hope. She narrates her own romantic and emotional demise, and this time, there's no light at the end of the tunnel. The only thing that stops "Back to Black" from being totally nihlistic is the elegance of her songwriting. Or maybe the act of singing it helped exorcise some of her demons. In the 2015 documentary Amy, we see footage of her recording the vocal, and when she's done, she realises – "Oh, it's a bit upsetting at the end, isn't it?" And she smiles, slyly.
Amy's songs were her stories, but she interpreted them through her voice. That's what makes her truly uncoverable. Few have her vocal squawk, or her influences – and no one has her emotional relationship with those songs. Her lyrics were intimately woven with her melodies, but like all great jazz singers, she could go off on wild tangents without losing track of the song's original meaning. She'd roll syllables around in her mouth; and sing on, off, and around the beat – like how Lil Wayne would rap. In the decade since, pop's become more mechanical, and jazz increasingly niche. Amy Winehouse was commanding, but delicate – and neither genre has produced an interpreter of lyric equal to her.
Amy's contradictions are important. No great artist is simple, or flawless. We're all informed by every version of ourselves – our choices and our mistakes. In art, vulnerability is a source of strength. Amy never idealised herself in her songs, but she was her best self when she was performing them.
When Amy and Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck were released last year, it was logical to compare the two. Bleach and Nevermind, Frank and Back to Black; Cobain and Winehouse both learned to refine their sprawling, restless debuts into more accessible second albums. But Winehouse arguably had more in common with another died-young artist: Jeff Buckley. Both were genetically blessed with extraordinary voices, but each was the sum of a lifetime of musical influences. No other human in history worshipped Jeff Buckley's eclectic idols – and Amy lived and breathed jazz, until she internalised it. True jazz vocalists don't imitate – they interpret. They carry on a tradition while making it their own. Amy Winehouse was an anachronism: a jazz singer born in the wrong era, who learned to write songs from the perspective of a 21st century British, Jewish woman. Her voice expressed not just emotion, but an entire lineage of musical history.
Great art is indefinable, like alchemy. But great artists are mortal. They're examples to be followed. No one is born a genius, and there are no truly original ideas. So you learn from the past to write the future. As Amy looked to icons of jazz, soul and hip-hop, so can we – artists of all kinds – look to her, ten years on.
Richard S. He is a pop musician and award-winning critic. You can tweet your grievances to @Richaod.