Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Amy Winehouse: Let Her Sing Her Song

by L.S. Schaeffer

From Amy Winehouse's Stronger Than Me:

“You should be stronger than me -- you been here 7 years longer than me... don't you know you supposed to be the man... why do you always put me in control? All I need is for my man to live up to his role.”

So sang Amy Winehouse in clumsy, evocative poetry. This, her, in a sassy and demanding, but vulnerable, voice. This, her, a very 21st century girl, and not much of a traditionalist, singing about the failure of men to "live up to (their) role." This, her, back before she was a supernova Grammy starlet, just before she was a real big world-wide star, and long before she stumbled around, forgot lyrics, and was booed off stage. In recent public memory, she's known most for being booed of stage, and dying too young. Yet, I'm not thinking about any of that right now. I'm too busy remembering the way she lamented, "You should be stronger than me..." This is what I most remember about Amy Winehouse: what she sang, and the way she sang.

She might have been booed off stage at her last big performance, but she won’t be booed off the world stage. No. She’ll always turn up on juke boxes. Her music will appear now and then in Rolling Stone’s great-whatever catalogues. She will be on everyone’s iPod 20 years from now. Actually, given the current trends in technology, they won’t be making iPods in 20 years.  But they’ll still be making Winehouse’s CD’s. Scratch that. They won’t be making CD’s in 5 years. Regardless, in whatever medium music is delivered, Winehouse’s music will be there. She’ll keep selling records, and she’ll keep singing. And, we’ll keep listening.

She is one more in a line of legends who stumbled drunk or high through greatness: Hank, Hank Jr. (truly, “a family tradition”), Hendrix, Joplin, Waylon Jennings, Morrison, Cobain, and that fictional character from Crazy (Bad Blake receives honorable mention as the archetype of the drunk genius). These legends had two things in common: talent, and self-destructive addiction. They have one more thing in common, too: legions of admiring, often disappointed, fans. Like Winehouse, they drove fans crazy with uneven lifestyles, and more uneven performances. Like Winehouse, they were late for shows, and often no shows, which just goes to show: there’s nothing is new under the sun. Winehouse isn’t the first musician to show up high for a concert. She’s not the first to cancel a tour. She’s not the first to alienate fans by trashing her gifts. If anything, she stands last in a long line.

Yet, even when Hank et al. didn’t show, the fans did. The fans were always there, waiting patiently. These drunken geniuses had an inconstancy only matched by the constancy of their fans. They kept their fan base despite the no shows, despite lack of production, and despite spite. They “couldn’t make it,” but the fans always could. The fans were there, always there: waiting, hoping, and wishing for another album, or another stunning performance. And the fans were there for Whinehouse, too.

The last 4 years have been grueling for Winehouse fans. She kept them on edge in anticipation of – maybe, just maybe – a return to form. Maybe, just maybe, another record. Sure, some of these same fans booed her off stage. Other fans trashed her for wasting her talent. Yet, I’d be willing to wager that the fans who booed her off stage still listened to her music. They probably listened to it in the car on the way home, just after booing her in person. Their probably listening to it right now, and relishing the fact that they got to see her, actually see her, in concert. Again, nothing new:

Hank Williams was the king of country soul
My dad took me to see him in Lubbock, but he didn't show.
Now the people got mad and they all went home.
The first thing we did was put his records on.
I guess we should have left him alone and let him sing his song.

"Why?" You ask. Why do the fans keep showing up even when the performers don’t? No doubt, there is some element of devotion. No doubt, some people show up just to see the fireworks. Yet, none of this explains the real reason why – why fans remained till the end, and why they will remain past the end. The real reason is simple: talent. Whinehouse, Hank, Cobain et. al. possessed God-given talent. To see them at their best was to witness a breathtaking thing of beauty, and a work of art. To see them at their second best was still mesmerizing. To see them at their worst just reminded you of that one time you saw them at their best.

Such individuals, though personally devastated, still produce masterpieces. This is another way of stating something we learn in Genesis 2-4. Man is made in God’s image, and entrusted with divine gifts. God, in an almost reckless way, has showered humanity with dignity, gifts, and responsibility. He’s like the doting father who just can’t help but give another gift, and then another, at his kid's birthday party. Yet, sin has crashed this party, and vandalized these gifts. Sin has wrecked humanity and marred, but not destroyed, God's image, or God's gifts. So, at present, we live in a world where depravity and divine gifts stand side by side, often in the same person. Rather, always in the same person.

It is hard to keep both these truths -- divine gifts and human depravity – in view at the same time, in the same person. Orwell at least tried when he said, "One ought to be able to hold in one's head simultaneously the two facts that DalĂ­ is a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being.”

Dennis Lehane’s character Chuck in Shutter Island tried to come to grips with the coexistence of gifts and depravity when he first meets a woman broken gifted with bracing beauty, but devastated by insanity: 

Cawley (said), “Are you reacting to her apparent beauty, or her apparent madness?”
“Both,” Chuck said.

“Both” – both a surfeit of gifts, and a sewer of depravity. Looking at either in isolation is stunning. The gifts of some are so great that man is tempted to worship other men, as gods. The evil of man is so frightening that man is tempted to flee all men, as demons.

 Looking at either is stunning; looking at both, together, in the same creature, or creatures, makes your head spin.

“Both.” Both remarkable gifts, and heartbreaking depravity. This sums up the human condition. Just look at Cain; he had atrocious personal ethics – we usually only remember him as the original murderer – but he was also the original architect, and the first denizen city-zen (Genesis 4.17). If you asked anyone, "Who was the first man to found a city?" -- Cain doesn't come to mind. Yet, this man, he with a brother's blood on his hands, apparently had dreams in his head of bringing men together in community. Huh?

It is a testimony to the abiding image of God that, no matter how destitute an individual becomes, their gifts still shine through. In depravity, dignity remains. Mozart was no church pianist, ethically speaking, and yet he is the church pianist, technically speaking. Mozart, like Winehouse, and like Waylon, was known to get out of his mind. Then, a minute later, produce a work of art out of this world.

Oh, Waylon has been known to play half time
He been known to get out of his mind
Don't know whether he's right or wrong
He's got a string of hits about two miles long
Why don't you leave that boy alone, let him sing his song?

Yeah, Winehouse got out of her mind. We all remember that. We should also remember that she’s got a string of hits about two miles long, and a string of Grammys about two feet long. Much of the attention paid to her of late has highlighted her decline. Let’s not forget the height from which she declined. Let's not forget that she was abnormally, divinely, gifted. Russell Brand described her vocal gifts life this:

I arrived late and as I made my way to the audience through the plastic smiles and plastic cups I heard the rolling, wondrous resonance of a female vocal. Entering the space I saw Amy on stage with Weller and his band; and then the awe. The awe that envelops when witnessing a genius. From her oddly dainty presence that voice, a voice that seemed not to come from her but from somewhere beyond even Billie [Holiday] and Ella [Fitzgerald], from the font of all greatness. A voice that was filled with such power and pain that it was at once entirely human yet laced with the divine. My ears, my mouth, my heart and mind all instantly opened...

Well, then, her gifts are undeniable. But how do her gifts relate to her struggle with addiction? Some will say that great creativity is fueled by destructive behavior. Thus, they imply, the deaths of Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison, Hank, and Whinehouse are a fait accompli. No way around it. It was the price of greatness. Such a line of argument even glorifies the destructive lifestyles of these talented individuals. As if, dying young of a drug overdose is your best life now.

I’d argue the opposite. Destruction is not the backdrop to great creativity. Rather, great creativity is the back drop to destruction. Whinehouse was a gift despite her self-destruction. That shows how great her gifts were. The fact that her gifts shined through is a testimony, not to her destruction, but to her gifts. Had her gifts been less, we’d never have known about her self-destruction. Her self-destruction being what it was, it is a miracle that we know about her gifts. This is grace. Uncommon grace.

I imagine someone will point out the song Rehab as a foil to this argument. Didn’t Winehouse become a sensation because she refused to go to rehab? 

They tried to make me go to rehab, I said, "No. No. No."
Yes, I've been black, but when I come back you'll know, know, know.
I ain't got the time, and if my daddy thinks I'm fine –
He's tried to make me go to rehab, I won't go, go, go.

Doesn’t this show that her greatness came because of self-destruction? No. No. No.

If you listen to Rehab closely, you’ll hear a childish girl refusing to do what she is told to do, yes. You’ll hear a petulant girl who thinks she knows it all, yes. Then, if you keep listening, you will hear a young woman struggling to come to grips with the pain of a broken relationship:

The man said, “Why do you think you’re here?”
I said, “I got no idea.
I’m gonna, I’m gonna lose my baby.
So I always keep a bottle near.”

Her drunkenness was a salve for her pain – it was a pain killer. That’s the real point of this song, and that’s the real point of Whinehouse’s troubled career. She felt deeply, and sang authentically, about human pain. I’d even argue that the more she false medicated that pain, the more she diminished. The pain made her great. The pain colored her voice in deeper tones. If you want to test this theory, read the comments about her on YouTube. You’ll find lots of comments to the effect, “I was going through a hard time, and I listened to her music.”

As Catrinia Molitor recently noted, "Her pain combined with God-given talent brought about her genius, poignant, soulful music... Do you think God blessed her with pain? I bet! And (He) worked through her to bring comfort to others!"

Now, when you combine pain and artistic genius, you get Hank, Cobain, and Winehouse, et al. If you add drugs and drunkenness to that equation, you don’t get more genius. You get something else, something too sad to speak about just now.

You’ll be reading lots of pieces like this one about Amy Whinehouse’s troubled end. You'll also read lots of pieces prodding mercilessly into her failings. I’d rather not speak of her troubled life. I'd rather leave that alone, and let her sing her song. I’d rather speak of her voice, her lyrics, and her gifts.

We should speak about the gift of Amy Winehouse. We should speak of how the gifts of God remain, by grace, in a world racked with sin and destruction. We should give thanks that God has given some of us lovely voices, artistic genius, and a way with words. We should give thanks, and sing. We should, when we think of Amy Whinehouse, remember her voice, and her lyrics. We should let her sing her song.

Why don't you leave that girl alone let 'er sing her song
You know she’s gonna do whatever she wants.
If you don't like the way she sings – who's gonna cast the first stone?
Why don't you leave that girl alone, let 'er sing her song?

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