…I relisten to this album with a greater depth of understanding and appreciation for the rhetorical ability of Winehouse to convey and connect these particular situations of romance and pain to a vast audience she could have never anticipated.
In 2003, Amy Winehouse was an unknown talent in the UK and around the world. On October 20th of that year, her debut album Frank was released in the UK with little fanfare. At the tender age of 20, Winehouse had influences and emotion beyond her years, making the album an intimate predecessor to her more well-known and critically acclaimed follow-up album Back to Black in 2006. Nick Levine quotes Winehouse’s own subsequent critiques of both the emotional vulnerability of Frank and its underground, ineffective marketing:
“Some things on this album make me go to a little place that’s fucking bitter,” she told The Observer in February 2004, just three months after it dropped. “I’ve never heard the album from start to finish. I don’t have it in my house. Well, the marketing was fucked, the promotion was terrible. Everything was a shambles.” (Levine)
As the album has reached its sixteenth anniversary, Frank continues to portray and relate the romantic and coming-of-age tribulations faced by self-proclaimed tough girl Amy Winehouse to yearning listeners such as myself.
The vinyl LP of Frank is a heavy double album featuring several iconic images of a young Amy Winehouse taken by photographer Charles Moriarty. As compared to the chaotic and melancholic image of Winehouse in her final years as painted by the media, Moriarty captures the carefree essence and lighthearted humor of Winehouse on the album’s cover, where she beams down at the two black Scottish Terriers she is walking down the nighttime street. Charles Moriarty explains the importance of sharing his photography of Frank-era Amy fifteen years later in an interview with Crack:
“I just hope this work lets people see Amy’s heart. She wasn’t always Amy Winehouse, she was once just Amy, a girl from East London, with a dream and a smile. I got a brief glimpse of a pre-fame Amy starting out and dipping her toe in the waters, someone really feeling the thrill of making music for the first time. I guess my photos capture someone at a point of pure beginning…I want these photos, which are full of life and possibilities, to be how people really remember Amy Winehouse.” (Hobbs)
Amy Winehouse is, at her core, a jazz vocalist and musician. While she expands on her influences by layering hip hop beats and traditional progressions of house music with the help of her producer and keyboardist Salaam Remi, the spirits of Billie Holiday, Erykah Badu, and, of course, Frank Sinatra haunt every note of Winehouse’s artistry. Her musical skill tightly contains these elements throughout the album, where “you can hear this musical fusion in highlights like ‘Stronger Than Me’, ‘Fuck Me Pumps’ and ‘October Song’, where Winehouse’s languid, jazzy melodies meet bold, bolshy beats” (Levine).
In the lyrical sense, Amy Winehouse excels at her personal style of emotionally-tinged narration, demonstrating her sorrow and pain through brief vocal cracks, anger and frustration through strong-rooted cries from the vocal diaphragm, and most commonly, passion and flirtation through her trademark “mush-mouthed” croons (Brooks). On the sexual topics of the album, Winehouse shares a familiarly feminine goal with artists such as Lil Kim, Kali Uchis, Beyoncé, and Liz Phair in utilizing the storytelling process of her sexual endeavors as a form of intentional “self-exploitation in order to highlight exploitation, to present…obscene imagery for an obscene world” (Wilson). In one of the album’s characteristic hits, “Fuck Me Pumps,” Winehouse straddles this “obscene imagery” with a quick wit when describing the ‘basketball wives’ caricature of the early 2000’s. This song in particular negatively likens Winehouse to the strategies of “feminine competitiveness” as used by modern female musicians such as Iggy Azalea and Lily Allen (Powers). Winehouse strives to portray herself as different than the vapid and impressionistic girls in the club trying to attract famous athletes, but her judgment can sometimes sway too far and instead fit her into the description of Powers as trying to be “one of the guys”: “Her appearance is soft…but her attitude is hard, and distinctly masculine.”
I was in ninth grade when I first heard Frank from front-to-back. As a vulnerable 15-year-old girl, all of Amy’s words, cries, and candor spoke directly to me. The first time I listened to “I Heard Love Is Blind,” my body shook with awe and adoration for Winehouse’s talent and storytelling. The song is still my favorite off the album based on the subdued and jazzy instrumentation, her soft but precise vocals, and the perfect visualization; I still firmly believe that Amy succeeded in writing the most beautiful song about cheating. Ninth grade was also the year I joined my high school choir and began exploring vocal performance options around my town with my acoustic guitar in hand, so Amy quickly became my primary musical influence throughout my solo musical venture from age fifteen to now.
Now, having freshly turned twenty, I relisten to this album with a greater depth of understanding and appreciation for the rhetorical ability of Winehouse to convey and connect these particular situations of romance and pain to a vast audience she could have never anticipated. For a 20-year-old girl, Amy was just as introspective as the rest of us, and as she sings about second-guessing in life in “Know You Now”, giving into temptations in “Amy Amy Amy”, and escapism through music in “Cherry,” listeners are equally engaged by the smooth progression of Frank and the stories it contains.
While Amy Winehouse’s musical talent is widely accepted and acclaimed, her cultural significance is highly disputed by popular musical critics who see signs of cultural appropriation in her artistic style. Daphne A. Brooks wrote a scathing analysis in 2008 concerning Winehouse and her usage of African-American musical influences to craft and capitalize upon a ‘black’ persona. When listening to the album and discerning hints of Etta James, Stevie Wonder, Billie Holiday, and more, there is a significant argument that Amy Winehouse and her band were striving to make “music that resuscitated the sound as well as the aura of black culture circa 1964–yet it was played by a predominantly white group of musicians” (Brooks).
Nevertheless, Amy Winehouse displays an important and fleeting moment in the history of UK popular music and female musicianship in the 2000s, as well as holding a meaningful personal significance to many fans around the world. After her sudden and tragic death in 2011 at the age of 27, Winehouse signified the painful loss of youthful potential as an almost entirely self-made female singer/songwriter, branching off the legacies of Joni Mitchell, Carole King, and countless other talents. To me, Amy has always been and will always be incomparable in a sense, rooted in a vast array of musical influences and dependent upon a level of her personal feminine vulnerability that other artists cannot fully open up to, and she especially displays herself as “an artist like no other” in this debut.
Brooks, Daphne A. “Amy Winehouse and the (Black) Art of Appropriation.” The Nation, 14 Jan. 2019, https://www.thenation.com/article/amy-winehouse-and-black-art-appropriation/.
Hobbs, Thomas. “The Untold Story behind Amy Winehouse’s Vivacious ‘Frank’ Artwork.” Crack Magazine, 12 Feb. 2019, https://crackmagazine.net/article/long-reads/under-covers-the-untold-story-behind-amy-winehouses-vivacious-frank-artwork/.
Levine, Nick. “Revisiting Amy Winehouse’s Debut Album, Frank, 15 Years On.” i-D, VICE, 18 Oct. 2018, https://i-d.vice.com/en_us/article/gye9p4/amy-winehouse-frank-anniversary.
Powers, Ann. “Is It Worth It To Work It?” NPR, NPR, 8 May 2014, https://www.npr.org/sections/therecord/2014/05/08/310703564/is-it-worth-it-to-work-it.
Wilson, Carl. “How Liz Phair Transformed the Girly-Sound Tapes to Exile in Guyville.” Slate Magazine, Slate, 9 May 2018, https://slate.com/culture/2018/05/liz-phairs-girly-sound-to-guyville-reviewed.html.