by Lily Lyons
This fall marks the 10th anniversary of Back to Black, and Amy Winehouse’s picture has been everywhere. I see her in bland news reports and tidy think pieces, staring me down from her album cover in a way that is fiercely bored but also unsure. She looks like the girls who lean against the fences of Coney Island in the heavy heat of summer: restless, her body brimming with some feeling that has nowhere to go. I remember a friend saying that the size of Amy’s hair reflected how well she felt, growing bigger and more eye-catching when her body went thin. On the cover of Back to Black her hair is only half big, suggesting that she wrote the songs at a time when she was facing her troubles, but was not yet overwhelmed by them.
I’m not the only one thinking such thoughts about Amy: countless people have found themselves darkly fascinated with her songs and her story since she died in 2011. In a culmination of this nostalgia, The Amy Winehouse Foundation is sponsoring #BackToBlack10, a cover contest in honor of the Back to Black anniversary. Official instrumental versions of two Back to Black tracks—“Just Friends” and “Tears Dry On Their Own”—are currently available for the public to record over. The winner will get studio time and career nurturing, and the contest proceeds will go towards charitable efforts in substance abuse education.
The #BackToBlack10 contest seems like a respectful way to honor Amy Winehouse’s music—and it is. But as I began watching the cover videos, something didn’t feel right to me. The mostly teen and twenty-something girls entering the contest weren’t putting their own spin on their covers: they were attempting to be Amy. They tried on the gritty ache of her voice, obscuring their natural sound. I’ve always felt that a good cover involves learning the subtleties of the artist’s delivery but also bringing individuality to the song, highlighting your personal strengths. Forcing yourself to sing like another person just creates strain and feels dishonest.
As I kept watching, I noticed that many of the people in the #BacktoBlack10 contest took the idea of being Amy beyond just singing like her. Some of them lounged about in the 1950s looks she loved, their hair up in messy bouffants. Others carefully constructed shots that mimicked the moody intensity of her music videos, lingering on close-ups of dramatic eye contact, or slowly walking through gloomy city scapes. Trying to sing like Amy was harmless beyond being bad vocal technique, but trying to have her persona seemed more problematic to me. Was obsessing over Amy’s heartrending, troubled image healthy? Did the knee-jerk nostalgia I had felt when looking at her picture make me part of that obsession?
Amy was a vital, ferocious musician who never sang a line in a throwaway manner. She had a beautiful capacity for injecting reality with just the right amount of poetry in her lyrics. She built upon a tradition of singing that was colorful and thick with longing, inspiring her audience to discover artists such as Sarah Vaughn and Dinah Washington. So why don’t we focus on those things when we remember her? It’s easy to get wrapped up in the story of her meteoric rise and fall, to find a bittersweet beauty in her self-destructive intensity. But trying to adopt her image, and reenact her heartbreak romanticizes her struggles with substance abuse, unhealthy relationships, and bulimia. These things may have fueled her songwriting but we should not treat them as if they are sexy or desirable. Doing so is glamorizing the tragedy of a musician who was pushed to make money at the expense of her well-being. And it’s failing to remember Amy for what made her special: her music.
WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE SONG ON “BACK TO BLACK”? LET US KNOW IN THE COMMENTS