On Amy and 'Frank'
This month would have marked Amy Winehouse’s fortieth birthday. This year, somehow, also marks the twentieth anniversary of her debut album Frank.
Undoubtedly, reader, I adore her music. I think of Amy often, and miss her dearly. Her playful, tenacious and often heart-wrenching lyricism, her endearing wit, her mutual detest and yearning for the cruelest of men. Her bombastic spirit and ego and ineffable strength and grace. I recognise a hesitancy in referring to any artist by their forename - a disturbed longing for connection, exacerbated by a culture of fanaticism - however much of Amy’s music, and in particular her seminal 2003 debut, strikes a painful and familiar chord.
In truth, I feel I know her. Twenty years on from its initial release, Frank holds a mirror to a troubled kind of girlhood.
Amy Winehouse in the music video for Stronger Than Me, from the album Frank, released 2003.
An earnest ode to Sinatra and double entendre for her brutal honesty, Frank is an eclectic collection of soulful melodies thoroughly embellished with Amy’s foundational influences: the cool and collected jazz of the nineteen-fifties interwoven with the uptempo rhythm and blues of the early aughts. A soulful, plush precursor to the sombre and percussive Back to Black - her sonic breakthrough - Frank is flooded with stories of a twenty-something Amy’s musings on love, sex and dependency.
Within it, Amy unfurls the narrative of a young and rambunctious girl pursuing love in all the wrong places - tough to sort files, with your voice in my head - grappling with insecure dynamics of power, outpouring fire and fury into every word. Her approach to songwriting - tactile, blunt, biting - felt so visceral to me that I could see the events of each song ensue crystal clear within my mind. I see her, even in the slightest of glimpses, and in turn see myself reflected in her work.
Amy aptly tapped into feelings which I did not know that I had. One of sorrow and anger against men much older than my years, and a deep desperation to be adored unconditionally. Frank, I feel, is timeless.
Amy Winehouse performing You Sent Me Flying, from the album Frank, live at the New Pop Festival, 2004.
Following the album’s release, in September of 2004, Amy - then twenty-one years old - showcased that furious emotion and vocal tenacity within her live rendition of You Sent Me Flying, at the New Pop Festival in Germany. Here, Amy begins visibly giddy and mischievous before the gilded rows of the theatre Baden-Baden. Briefly turning from the audience, microphone in hand, Amy grins:
“This next tune is called You Sent Me Flying, and I wrote it about a guy who I used to like who didn’t like me back. So, this is for him.”
At the heart of her writing persists a universal truth: the unending urge to love, and be loved in return. As the six-minute performance slowly swirls, Amy embodies this love. Her confidence visibly swells, her voice becoming bolder, heavier, with an implicit flicker of anger-induced glee. As Amy relays her experience, she gazes with longing out into the crowd, as though looking directly to the song’s antagonist. Within her rendition, there feels a palpable sense that Amy is reliving each lyric moment to moment, once again feeling those fresh waves of betrayal.
Mere minutes into the performance Amy unveils her true technical skill, heat emanating from her chest: And I’m not used to this / I observe, I don’t chase / But now I’m stuck with my consequences, thrust in my face.
The mood in the room palpably shifts, as she commands the stage and all are called to her attention. There is, it seems, an energy within the air, a vibrancy - her voice leading the band, and the players relishing in the moment. For an album released, jarringly, two decades ago, Amy’s debut still endures - eloquently capturing the trials and tribulations of naive romance and promiscuity. Her sharp and cutting lyricism resonates in a way that I, reader, cannot adequately describe.
I feel I know and understand her world, kicked to the curb.
Amy Winehouse in the music video for In My Bed, from the album Frank, released 2003.
In My Bed, released as the third single from her debut, further magnifies Amy’s intimate prowess and power, as she seeks to satiate her desire without the emotional attachment which inevitably follows. Within the music video, we see Amy saunter gracefully towards the lens a glossed and buxom doll: hips swayed, head bowed, gaze directly confronting the viewer. She swirls, cinched, abound in Dolce. Black lace resting against her skin, a glossed swipe of hot-pink paints her pout.
It’s something I know you can’t do
Separate sex with emotion
I sleep alone, the sun comes up
You’re still clinging to that notion
Throughout both Frank and Back to Black, her second and final studio album released in late 2006, Amy’s vocal presence demonstrates a potent and unforgiving magnetism, a fire-swelling timbre imbued with want and longing, both good and bad. I feel, oddly, an unsettling loss in what could have been for her as not a performer, but a person: triumphant, healed, safe from harm. In the years since her passing, her artistic legacy has only endured and grown ever stronger. I cannot help but wonder, where would she be now and what would she say?