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Rock icon or a victim of exploitation? Examining Amy Winehouse's legacy

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU KNOW I'M NO GOOD")

AMY WINEHOUSE: (Singing) Meet you downstairs in the bar and hurt.

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

Nearly 13 years after she died, Amy Winehouse is still captivating fans.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU KNOW I'M NO GOOD")

WINEHOUSE: (Singing) What did you do with him today? And sniffed me out like I was Tanqueray.

KEITH: The British singer died from alcohol poisoning in 2011 at just 27 years old. She became a symbol of rock star excess to some. To others, she was a victim of a heartless music industry that only cared about her earnings power and did little to help her with her very public addictions.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU KNOW I'M NO GOOD")

WINEHOUSE: (Singing) I cheated myself like I knew I would.

KEITH: A new film about Winehouse's life, "Back To Black," is out in theaters now, which is a perfect occasion for NPR Music's Stephen Thompson to join us to talk about Amy Winehouse and her legacy. Hello.

STEPHEN THOMPSON, BYLINE: Hello. It's good to be here.

KEITH: So for those who may have missed the aughts, what made Amy Winehouse a star?

THOMPSON: Well, it's a combination of this beautiful, brassy voice that seemed to come from more than just one person. She fit in with the sound of a lot of English pop, a lot of English singer-songwriters, but it was infused with classic girl group sounds. It kind of emanated from a bunch of eras and genres at once, and she put out a basically perfect record in 2006 called "Back To Black" that is just stacked with these wonderful songs that sound like they're coming from many different places at once.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE IS A LOSING GAME")

WINEHOUSE: (Singing) For you, I was a flame. Love is a losing game. Five-story fire as you came...

KEITH: Stephen, you're here because there's this film.

THOMPSON: Yes.

KEITH: And you've seen it.

THOMPSON: I have.

KEITH: And I know you have some thoughts.

THOMPSON: Well, I think Marisa Abela as Amy Winehouse does a very respectable kind of impersonation. Like so many biopics, it has a lot of kind of celebrity impersonation to it. Every once in a while, you look at her face, and she doesn't look like Amy Winehouse. She looks like Britney Spears in a black wig, which is a little odd. But I want to say, I think it is a very respectable performance. The film that that performance hangs on has nothing to say. It has no reason to exist. It doesn't seem to come from any point of view whatsoever. It seems to exist only because there's a market for it.

The only good thing I can say for the movie - I do think it's a good performance, but the good thing about the movie is that it compels us to sit here and talk about the genius of Amy Winehouse, who was a wonderful, wonderful artist.

KEITH: So let's do that because she came out in this era of bubblegum pop stars. But she was different.

THOMPSON: Yeah. I mean, I think if you're looking for artists that you might compare her to, I think she fits into the genre of somebody like Adele, who brings a certain brassiness and personality to pop music, where you can really tell that the song is not just coming from this voice but from this person. And I think Amy Winehouse fits within that, but she also brought in an appreciation for jazz music. She brought in an appreciation for Motown. She was pulling from a lot of different musical resources, and at the same time, imbuing them with her story.

Think about a song like "Rehab." I mean, "Rehab," unfortunately, is a very true story. People were trying to make Amy Winehouse go to rehab and deal with her alcoholism, and she said no. Her father backed her up. And that specificity is heartbreaking. It also tags that song as something that could only come from this one person and - while still tapping into something universal.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REHAB")

WINEHOUSE: (Singing) They tried to make me go to rehab, but 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, but I won't go, go, go.

KEITH: So obviously, in hindsight, that song was a cry for help.

THOMPSON: Right.

KEITH: Or at least opening the doors on all of her troubles.

THOMPSON: At least acknowledging her troubles. And, boy, it brings up such mixed feelings listening to that song now because you hear it now as a chapter in a tragedy, even as it's impossible to hear that song and not get goosebumps from just what a fantastically catchy, inviting song it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REHAB")

WINEHOUSE: (Singing) I'm going to, I'm going to lose my baby, so I always keep a bottle near.

KEITH: It's a total bop about not going to rehab.

THOMPSON: It's a total bop from someone you wanted to see help herself.

KEITH: Obviously, she died young, too young. Is she an artist who leaves a legacy in others, or was she a one of one? Was she just unique and special and not replicable?

THOMPSON: I think anyone who tried to replicate her exact mix of characteristics and attributes would just be viewed as a carbon copy, would be viewed as a clear tribute act. I think bits and pieces have been absorbed by other artists. I like to think that she introduced a generation of music fans to the music of girl groups, to ways to incorporate some jazz forms, ways to kind of bring in a lot of different sounds and styles from across a lot of different eras. I hope that she expanded the musical palettes of a lot of musicians that followed her, even though it would make no sense to try to be influenced by them all at once.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMY WINEHOUSE SONG, "VALERIE")

KEITH: Stephen Thompson of NPR Music, Thanks for joining us.

THOMPSON: Thank you, Tam.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VALERIE")

WINEHOUSE: Well, sometimes, I go out by myself, and I look across the water. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)