It's easy to make jokes about the premature -- if sadly somewhat predictable -- death of Amy Winehouse, who died today, of officially unknown causes, at the age of 27. It's almost harder to avoid the jokes. After all, the talented but troubled British soul singer-songwriter preemptively provided us with plenty of fodder, her smash hit "Rehab"; not the least of it. Regardless of how far off everyone could see this tragedy coming, Winehouse's story is not only a far too familiar example of the heartbreak that inevitably comes with addiction, but also an incredible loss for popular music.
For American audiences at least, Winehouse broke through in 2007 (maybe a little earlier for the web-savvy) with her second album, Back to Black. With her beehive hairdo, heavy-eyeliner retro look and dusty-grooved sound, she heralded the vintage-soul revival that now stretches all the way to Adele. She impressed audiences and critics alike with her salty, scratched-up, and indelibly soulful voice. Equally impressive, however, was the grace with which she revamped the grit and guts of classic '60s and '70s soul -- and the ease with which articulated and musically interpreted a gut-wrenching, self-deprecating pathos that somehow still managed to be palatable and even, well, fun.
No song better encompassed both her persona and her talent than "Rehab," which flaunted her unwillingness to pursue a healthy lifestyle in a manner that was maddeningly rock 'n roll stupid, endearingly sympathetic, and, especially, impeccably sung in an elegantly wasted timbre that made her sound much, much older than her twentysomething years. The song become the singers all-too-fitting anthem: several other massive hits from Back to Black -- and the re-release of her British-award-winning, more jazz-hued 2003 debut, Frank -- followed, but sadly, the press mostly seized instead on her dramatic romantic entanglements (especially with on-again, off-again ex-con ex-husband Blake Fielder-Civil), her ongoing struggles with drug addiction and drinking, and the increasingly negative impact all of the above had on her ability to perform and maintain a music career. Her much-anticipated third album was delayed again and again -- it was scheduled to drop this year.
Winehouse joins a long line of artists who died tragically at 27: Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, etc. One can't help but hear her diamond-in-the-very-rough, excruciatingly exposed musical output as a pained, beautifully screwed-up cry for help. Just listen to her gorgeously sung, bravely vulnerable version of "Someone to Watch Over Me,"; a song favored by another troubled yet talented soul whom Winehouse idolized: Billie Holiday. RIP.