British singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse had a relatively short musical career in the 2000s and 2010s before her passing — only two studio albums in total — but the impact she left on global popular culture remains revelatory. Merging vintage jazz and old school R&B with contemporary trends in pop, and hip-hop songwriting and production, vocalist Winehouse broke provocative new ground as a fledgling songwriter on her first album Frank (perhaps most notably on the genius single “ Fuck Me Pumps” co-written by producer Salaam Remi); then rose to prominence on the heels of her Mark Ronson produced 2007 Back to Black, a Grammy-winning album featuring trenchant autobiography, Motown and Phil Spector era girl-group sounds, insouciant dance tunes, and stark heart-torn balladry, delivered with Brit-punk irreverence. Though her life was cut tragically short by addiction issues, Winehouse is emblematic of several trends coming together at once: the Brit-pop resurgence of the late 2000s (Lily Allen, Corinne Bailey Rae, Adele, Duffy, etc.), the decade’s retromania for nostalgic sounds, the return of a neo Ronnie Spector ‘bad girl’ culture in pop music, a post-feminist appropriation of punk rock arrogance, and the insurgence of a stylized all-genres approach to pop consistent with the “anything goes” rise of YouTube and streaming service culture.
However, Winehouse did not rise to popularity in a vacuum. Though jazz songstresses like Billie Holiday are often cited as Winehouse’s influences, she herself has cited Mahalia Jackson, Dinah Washington, and Texas-born Young Disciple expat Carleen Anderson, as singers she admired; moreover, the so-called “neo-soul” and black bohemian artists of the late 1980s and 1990s created the immediate template that made space for the ascent of Winehouse in the 2000s. In particular, Dallas-reared singer-songwriter Erykah Badu deserves significant recognition for fusing together jazz, R&B, and hip-hop in the late 1990s around old-school solutions. Late 1990s and early 2000s classic albums like Baduizm and Mama’s Gun created the stylistic arena in which those aforementioned singers of the late 2000s would experiment, and Badu’s underappreciated late 2000s New Amerykah sets — to say nothing of her iconic fashion and boho-spiritual Soulquarian style — would provide the template for Black Lives Matter informed, art-as-activism, albums which would arrive in the next decade by artists like Solange, Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar.
From different sides of the pond, and born of different eras, Badu and Winehouse can be seen as symbolic sister rebels cut from the same punky, irreverent, revolutionary spirit. This class primarily juxtaposes the two icons, illuminating the historical tensions between whiteness and blackness; between vaudeville and the black chitlin’ circuit, between Tin Pan Alley and the Brill Building, between an individualistic, anarchic British Jewish woman and a collective-minded, post-Hip Hop Dallas-born African-American “race woman.”
Each session in this two-credit, seven-class course will include readings, listening, multimedia presentations and performances, plus a variety of special guests, to help explore the music and life of both of these icons, and where they intersect, from a variety of perspectives.