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On Pop

TikTok goes the clock

It took me a while but now I really appreciate Amy Winehouse, says Sarah Ditum

This article is taken from the November issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

Conversations with my 14-year-old daughter about music mostly take place as a series of incredulous demands. She’ll find me in the kitchen listening to Megan Thee Stallion as I stir a pot of macaroni, and unleash an outraged cry: “How do you know this? This is a TikTok song!” — meaning, a song that’s popular on the video-clip social network.

Or I’ll swish past as her phone throws out something I first heard in some filthy nightclub before she was even imagined: “Where did you hear the Yeah Yeah Yeahs?” (The answer, usually, is that it’s been stripped of context and turned into a TikTok song.)

Like birds and bats wandering different evolutionary routes to the same place of “having wings”, every once in a while, my daughter and I converge on a point of taste. So it shouldn’t have been a surprise, even though it was a surprise, when I started hearing Amy Winehouse pouring from her bedroom.

I knew she hadn’t picked up Winehouse directly from me, because I’d only recently overcome my own Winehouse scepticism. Back to Black was released in 2006, the same year my daughter was born, and my immediate reaction was that I hated it.

Not because it was bad (it obviously wasn’t). But there was something horrible about it. After her first album, Frank, came out in 2003, Winehouse got a reputation for hard living and heavy drinking. She was funny, loud, glamorous, and a mess. I knew the type. As a teenager, I’d worshipped Dorothy Parker for her confessional wit and her one-of-the-boys boozing.

It took me longer than it should have, and more hangovers than anyone strictly needs, to work out that she wasn’t an advert but a warning. Taking all that talent, and pickling it until you were only famous for light verse and highballs, maybe wasn’t something to aspire to.

Now here was Winehouse with the defiant “Rehab” — Back to Black’s lead single — in which she bluesily announced that she would not be drying out, thank you. Of course, everyone ate it up. Over the next few years, though, I felt my priggishness was vindicated. Winehouse
got messier, sicker, thinner.

For a while she was a punchline — I howled laughing when a friend reported his dad saying Winehouse could be as good as Billie Holiday if she only got clean (imagine being in such a state that Billie Holiday would be a step up!) — and then it wasn’t funny at all because she really looked as if she was dying.

In 2011 she died of alcohol poisoning, and so that was that. Apart from a scattering of covers and collaborations, she had made no new music since Back to Black. It wasn’t just the addiction that made the album squeamish to listen to. Back to Black is a breakup album recording Winehouse’s split from boyfriend Blake Fielder-Civil — only when the album made her into a huge deal, he came back.

Maybe it wasn’t all about the money, but he certainly seemed to enjoy spending it on drink and drugs. The relationship was violent: paparazzi pictures caught the couple bruised, bloodied and scratched.

So it felt grotesque to listen to the woozy melodrama of the title song (“You go back to her, and I go back to black,” sings Winehouse, the note sinking down to a deep mournful nothing), or the Sixties girl-group catharsis of “Tears Dry On Their Own”.

“He walks away/The sun goes down/He takes the day, but I’m grown,” go the defiant lyrics, although something about the melody and the structure makes it almost impossible not to hit play again as soon as the song is done — a small, gorgeous circle of inferno that you have to
live over and over and over.

It felt grotesque, but the songs — and the voice — were undeniable. Time diluted the awfulness, and the guilty pleasure felt more like just pleasure (and this, by the way, is what a “guilty pleasure” really ought to mean: not the patronising implication that you’re slumming it by succumbing to Abba, but genuine peril of the soul from knowing this music is the script for a woman eventually killing herself).

I had to coax myself into a fabricated innocence, a fragile separation of art and artist that the art is constantly rebuking, but by this year Back to Black had become one of my favourite albums.

For my daughter, the innocence comes easier. She knows the tragedy, but not the grisly feeling of complicity, having missed the tabloid circus by cleverly not being able to read at the time. Sometimes I feel agedly superior about the way I had to immerse myself in music to discover it when I was 14, while my daughter can simply be peppered with the best bits as she scrolls through TikTok.

Sometimes, though, her way seems better. Out of context, Back to Black is just a brilliant record — huge, heartbroken, and even (if you can imagine it all ending differently) fleetingly hopeful.

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