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The Freedom of Music: How Big a Talent was Amy Winehouse?

July 31st, 2011


One likes to believe in the freedom of music.
Rush – Spirit of Radio.

The death of Amy Winehouse has had a rather predictable initial outcome, a major boost in sales of Winehouse’s two albums, and a debate about whether she is a latter day Billie Holliday or another modern two bit product of minimal talent. I lean towards the former, although Shirley Bassey might be a comparison I’d be more inclined to make. sidebar-3

Amy Winehouse’ career spanned 9 years, beginning with her debut album Frank in 2003. In that 9 years – approximately the same period of time that the Beatles recorded together – she produced 2 albums worth of material, 24 songs. By comparison, Billie Holliday released 27 singles in the years 1936 and 1937. Any view of Winehouse needs to be tempered by the issue of her very small output.

There’s an Amy Winehouse story that has sat in my brain for the last week. On Saturday’s I write a celebrity culture piece, and after hearing about her death, I went back and reviewed the Amy Winehouse stories. Two and a half years ago, in March 2009, I noted that Winehouse had handed in her third album to the record company, an album with a strong reggae feel. The record company rejected it, telling her it was not a, “wise move to change her style so sharply.” Of course, up until record companies completely ruined the music business, a third album that went off in a different direction was a bit of a tradition, and acts that were serious did it regularly. But in 2009, any change of direction, any demonstration of talent above the previously approved demonstrations of talent didn’t wash.

Perhaps, of course, the Winehouse reggae album was lousy. Perhaps, possibly even, it was drug induced ramblings to some up-strummed syncopated guitars, and the record company was spot on to refuse to release it. But what if it’s not? What if, it is another great album, in a style completely different than the previous one? What then do we make of her talents?

Here’s a bold prediction: in the wake of her death, we are going to find out. The record company, so previously uninterested in Winehouse’s change of style, will release the reggae album posthumously. Further expect the DVD, and accompanying CD/iTunes release of her 2007 South by Southwest performances.

The 2007 South by Southwest performances are somewhat legendary. On the back of Back to Black, she did two sets, one with full band and one acoustic. Those who were there, including jaded music critics, where blown away by both. Releasing the two performances would put Winehouse out there as a significant live performer, overwriting the story of her last live performance a few weeks ago, which was nothing short of disaster.

But the reggae album will tell the tale. If it is a good album, or better than good, then likely Winehouse will forevermore be seen as a great talent, sadly cut down before she could build a significant repertoire. If it is a lousy album, then she will be rightly noted as a one time lucky performer, who couldn’t duplicate her early achievements.

There may be more, and if so, it will surely see the light of day. Perhaps some outtakes, perhaps that Bond theme she apparently wrote, but never got a chance to do because the Bond producer’s were more worried about her drug habit than her talent. It will all see the light of day, it will all sell extraordinarily well, making her poor sad parents rich beyond their imagination. And it will all go a long way to answering the question: just how big a talent was Amy Winehouse?

The Freedom of Music

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