Reflecting on Amy Winehouse’s Back To Black, 15 years later

Amy Winehouse’s second studio album displayed the English singer at her most vulnerable.

Amy Winehouse’s second and final studio album, Back to Black, highlighted a shift in her image. She traded in her argyle sweatshirt aesthetic and pop sensibilities for an edgy, Motown twist, sporting her towering beehive hairdo and signature winged liner as an ode to The Ronettes. Fifteen years after its release, the album is still a harrowing look at what could’ve been.

During Back To Black’s creation process, Winehouse was dealing with personal issues. Her dark experiences translated into songs dealing with heartbreak (“Back To Black,” “Love Is A Losing Game”), addiction (“Rehab”), depression (“He Can Only Hold Her”), romance (“Some Unholy War,” “Just Friends”), and moving on from a messy relationship (“Tears Dry On Their Own”). Despite the album’s melancholic songs, she nevertheless included songs that showcased her comedic side on songs such as “Addicted” and “Me & Mr. Jones” (“What kind of f***kery is this?”), providing a range of emotions to immerse listeners into her world.

In hindsight, the album transforms her demise into a piece of art that continues to be celebrated and listened to 15 years later. The songs present sorrowful thoughts of what could’ve been if Winehouse had sought help and surrounded herself with people who would get her on the right path. Even after all this time, the album still evokes feelings of both emptiness and hope. Despite the pain surrounding Winehouse’s passing, her music has aged like fine wine.

In “Rehab,” the sound of powerful brass instruments drowns out her cry for help as she recounts a conversation she had between her record label and her family concerning her drug and alcohol addiction (“And if my daddy thinks I’m fine … I don’t ever wanna drink again / I just, oh, I just need a friend”). Despite the upbeat melody and her comedic songwriting, this line is almost as if she was dismissing her addiction.

“Back To Black” captures Winehouse’s grief over her breakup with her partner, Blake Fielder-Civil. She reminisces about memories of Blake until he started dating another girl, making Winehouse fall back into depression (“You go back to her and I go back to black”). Her poetic lyricism showcases the artist’s sorrow and longing for her lover, spiralling Winehouse into her self-destructive cycle of drinking and drug usage.

I was 11 when news broke out regarding Winehouse’s death. All I saw on TV was her lifeless body carried out of her home while hearing her fans wail in the background. I didn’t know who she was at the time, but her passing got me curious about why she was celebrated. When I gave Back To Black a listen, I never thought that I would fall in love with jazz music and create an emotional bond with her. To lose a rare artist like her was devastating because she was an innovative artist who had impeccable lyricism and pushed the boundaries of music.

Not only did I fall in love with her music, but her overall persona. Amy challenged the monolithic perspective of how female artists ought to behave. She had an authentic personality, a snappy sense of humour, and a bold attitude — pretty rare for a female artist in the late 2000s.

When the music industry was forcing the innocent girl-next-door image on female pop artists, such as Britney Spears, Brandy and Christina Aguilera, Winehouse dismantled that image and allowed her uniqueness to shine through. She created her own identity; she showed the world who she was and reflected that through her songs.

Winehouse’s authenticity paved the path for other artists to create their own identity and sound, such as Adele, Jorja Smith, and Lana Del Rey, who all drew inspiration from Back To Black. In 2016, Adele performed a tribute during a concert in Boston, commemorating Winehouse’s 33rd birthday. She shared a story with her audience about how Winehouse inspired her to compose her own songs and stay authentic. “I feel like I owe 90 per cent of my career to her,” she recounted.

Winehouse accomplished so much throughout her short career: winning six Grammys, releasing her record label, Lioness Records, and singing a duet with her idol, Tony Bennett. Winehouse’s cultural prominence solidified after she was inaugurated in the “27 Club,” along with prominent artists such as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain.

Since her death, Winehouse became a cautionary tale in conversations about mental health, and drug and alcohol abuse in public discourse. Back To Black revealed the darkness that lurked within Winehouse and gave us a glimpse inside her world. Although she was suffering in silence, her music continues to capture her talent and her soul’s essence.


Graphic by @the.beta.lab

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