Thursday, April 12, 2007

Amy Winehouse's Back To Black: Great, Gimmick, Or Both?

Amy Winehouse has gained a lot of critical acclaim for her second album (and first U.S. release) Back To Black. It's features the style of 1960's pop/soul updated ever so slightly for the 2000's. This is certainly a fun album to listen to and in the current music landscape, it feels fresh. However, as I listened to this album, cynicism came creeping in. So, I Back To Black a good album, a fun gimmick or perhaps both?

First, let's deal with the easy stuff. Produced by Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi, this album has a wonderful sound that replicates the sound of old-school soul with ease. Winehouse herself has an intriguing voice, one that is unique enough to elicit comparisons to multiple artists.

Winehouse pens all the tracks on this album and she has a knack for crafting catchy, clever lines. Although "Rehab" is quite dark when you think about it (it's about an intervention, after all), a smile certainly comes to my face when I hear her sing "They tried to make me go to rehab and I said no no no." "Love Is A Losing Game" is a nice confection, one that seems like it's over far too quickly. "You Know That I'm No Good," has a nice hip-hop element to it and it's easy to see why Ghostface Killah borrowed it for his album More Fish.

In the first paragraph, I mentioned one word that sends chills down the spines of many music fans...gimmick. Usually, that word is reserved for the prefab, the manufactured, the artists who blatantly do whatever it takes to attract an audience, quality be damned. Nearly every boy band is a gimmick, playing to the vulnerable hearts and minds of tween and teenage girls who want to see and hear cute guys sing love songs. The more I thought about Amy Winehouse, the more I thought about the idea of a gimmick.

Much of Amy Winehouse's buzz comes from her reviving 1960's-style pop/soul, something that actually sounds gimmicky. Why? Well, what better way to attract baby boomers (the people who were actually alive when this style of music was made) than to make new music that sounds similar to what they remember?

Then, you can also draw in younger fans because most aren't familiar with the music of the 1960's and they'll be drawn to what seems new to them. Winehouse is young herself and they will be able to relate to that as well as the way she uses modern tactics such as hip-hop references and bad words (since those things weren't around back in the day).

Music critics can get sucked in too since they are probably glad to hear something R & B/soul-ish that isn't R. Kelly or Akon, isn't produced by Timbaland, isn't "pretentious" neo-soul, and isn't sung by someone who has no business singing.

Thoughts like this entered my mind in part because I think Winehouse walks a fine line between reviving a sound and simply imitating it. There has to be something more to her than "Look! She makes pop/soul that sounds just like it used to!" if she is to really stick around. There are glimmers of that on Back To Black ("You Know That I'm No Good" has hip-hop drums) and I hope there's more on her next album.

I like Amy Winehouse's Back To Black. It's well-made and fun to listen to. Amy's got a nice voice and she can write some good lyrics. Even though that cynic in me pops up to wonder why I'm listening to her instead of listening to the greats that inspired her, I decide to hold it back. All I should really want as a music fan is to have good music to listen to. If Amy Winehouse has some gimmicky elements about her, then she has some gimmicky elements about her. However, she's a good artist and Back To Black's a good album. Why should I complain?

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