Authenticity in a musical performance is a tricky thing to parse out. Probably because there’s no good working definition of it. You could come up with a list of criteria for measuring authenticity, but that would be self-defeating since a performer could do nothing more than hit his or her marks and bingo! Instant authenticity.
So I imagine, for most people, authenticity is like Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography in that they know it when they see it (Milli Vanilli aside). But when it comes to music, two people can see the same show or hear the same piece, and see and hear two very different things. So the whole notion of authenticity in music might just be moot. I’ve yet to read the book mentioned in this feature, but the accompanying text seems to suggest I’m right.
Therefore, I should probably stop obsessing over whether Amy Winehouse* is the real deal or not. But it would be a lot easier to do so if the business of music weren’t what it is today.
Winehouse is basically a pop singer working in a particular idiom that’s a mix of Brill Building songcraft, Motown soul and a touch of blues. Perhaps because those genres are seen as being more “real” than your average top 40 single, there’s more suspicion about her than there either Nelly Furtado – whose transformation from hippie neo-soulster to freak-hopper didn’t have anyone batting an eye – or Nellie McKay, whose first album of piano pop, rap and jazz had critics salivating for a follow-up before she was even old enough to drink (or so went the line at the time, which turned out to be not exactly true).
I haven’t delved into Winehouse’s personal history enough to know whether or not what she’s singing about is autobiographical. None of that matters though, since some of the greatest singers gave voice to thoughts and feelings that weren’t their own. Randy Newman’s not racist stupid and bigoted, but his characters certainly are. But no one would call his songs or performances inauthentic.
For me, Winehouse’s Back To Black album resonates with the same kind of power. You won’t find a more verisimilitudinous couplet in pop music than line than What kind of fuckery is this/You made me miss the Slick Rick gig from “Me and Mr. Jones.”
Even still, the whole notion of pop music involves at least a little artifice. It’s all just a question of how much an audience is willing to tolerate. A few manufactured feuds? Meh. Fudging your age? No big. Hooking up with a mega-producer to snag some chart success after your second album stiffs? Just bring the beats.
So if none of this matters – and if I’m essentially saying Winehouse is the real deal – then why the hesitation?
Well, I think it’s probably the package is just a little too precise. It goes without saying that Winehouse is easy on the eyes, but plenty of pop singers are both talented and hot. But things start to seem fishy when I know hear more about her drugging, partying feuding ways that I do about her music. All that ancillary crap is usually trotted out when the label feels their “product” doesn’t have the chops to make it without a compelling backstory.
And there’s the problem. Here you’ve got someone who’s proven (Winehouse already had one accomplished album under her belt before anyone here ever heard of her), hotter than sauce, and with a compelling – if sometimes absent – stage presence. Yet her record company is putting across Back to Black as if it’s Lindsay Lohan’s third album.
If you can’t sell someone with talent, shouldn’t you just get out of the business altogether?
* Is it me or is the streaming version of “Back to Black” on her website slower than it sounds on the album? See, this is the kind of stuff that makes me get all suspicious that I’m being duped into thinking she’s the Billie Holliday of the aughts.