Meditations on . . . the enduring lifespan of the pop song
One of the most wonderful and beguiling things about music is how it changes over its lifetime. It means one thing when it’s written and another thing every time anyone listens to it. The differences can be slight, depending on where you are when you hear it or how soon your next meal is, or huge. These are the factors no one can control, not you the listener and not the artist themselves. It’s impossible to hermetically seal a song and leave it with one definitive meaning; every person comes with their own backlog of memories and feelings, their own experiences and emotions and therefore hears a song in their own way.
Sometimes, though, a song can be overwhelmed by its own story; particularly if that story is a headline-worthy one that is being forced into your consciousness daily by a feckless national media. Such is the way many of us experienced Amy Winehouse’s music, confronted not only with that voice, those songs and her deep, keening despair, but also with her very public, tumultuous relationships and struggles with drugs and alcohol. It was almost impossible to live through the noughties in Britain and not be aware of Winehouse; you didn’t need to be a mega-fan to know the name of her then-boyfriend or the fact that she was in the tight grips of addiction. That coloured how we heard her second album, Back to Black, in particular. We heard it as a howl of pain played once an hour on Radio 1. No matter what we bring to the songs on Back to Black, if we lived through that time with a vague awareness of the media, the album is tethered to Winehouse’s perceived life and experience.
But this summer it’s been ten years since Winehouse died and a whole new generation is discovering her music for the first time. They bring with them a wealth of experiences and context that Winehouse herself never got to live through. There’s no way that an 18-year-old now can hear a song like Back to Black the same way that an 18-year-old in 2006 did. I envy them their ability to listen to Rehab – one of the finest pop songs of its time – without the churning feeling in their gut. Her first album, too, is a product of its time: when a generation raised with more awareness of feminism and gender roles listens to Stronger, they hear it in a different way to those of us who remember it from the days of Popworld and lads’ mags.
Our relationship to tabloid reporting has changed drastically over the past decade as well. We are just now we reckoning with the cultural fallout of a newspaper economy driven by trauma – see the Britney Spears documentary Framing Britney – but public outrage about the phone hacking scandal also shed light on an industry run amok, trading in nefariously-collected stories and incessant paparazzi presence around anyone of note. While Britney Spears’ very public breakdown in 2007 is imprinted in our collective minds, far fewer people could name a song or album of hers from that same era; her story overtook her work, engulfed and obscured it.
It would be nice to think that artists are more able to present their music without fear of this public scrutiny now that the younger generation are largely indifferent to tabloids. But of course that same lust for a juicy story has moved online, to social media. The difference is that stars now have more control over the intimate moments that they present to the world, and perhaps a little more control over how we see them. You can see this desire to retain ownership of their own biographies in the glut of documentaries that have come out over the past few years. Taylor Swift, Demi Lovato and Billie Eilish have all participated in films that are designed to reveal, but always within the confines of what they themselves are comfortable with. They choose to share difficult stories, rather than have them wrenched from them.
If you want to find out how a new generation of fans are experiencing music, there’s only one place to go: TikTok. Amy Winehouse TikTok is pretty active. Amid the eyeliner tutorials and the comments asking “who is she?” are a barrage of covers as young (mostly) women flex their vocal chords to emulate her nasally voice, digging deep to try to summon the feeling from somewhere almost supernatural. Two songs stick out as the most popular: Valerie (very obviously the Winehouse version and not the original by the Zutons) and Me & Mr Jones, the song that contains the immortal question: “What kind of fuckery is this?” The lyrics swing between presenting a brassy front as a lover messes her around and a concession that she’ll always be his woman. Though older listeners would instantly conflate this with Winehouse and her cursed relationship with Blake Fielder-Civil, the TikTok covers seems to see it as a deeply romantic song, full of a genuine desire to make the relationship work. Me & Mr Jones has a timelessness about it, just as its forebear, Billy Paul’s endlessly covered Me & Mrs Jones, does.
Of course, there are a different set of feelings assigned to music made by a singer who died tragically young; you don’t listen to Nirvana without knowing what happened to Kurt Cobain. Cobain died when I was nine. I was vaguely aware of the news when it happened, but it wasn’t until I was older that I listened to Nirvana, aware that he was a tragic figure but none of the details of his story. He was already a legend, his songs imbued with portents. The same must be true of Winehouse too. Like Cobain, her story is blurred by time and only fleshed out by a conscious effort to learn more about her. I can’t hear her sing without being haunted by a thousand upsetting front pages, but I’m glad that a new generation is getting the opportunity to experience her music in a different, more detached way, able to forge their own stories and give the songs new life, even if they are still marred by tragedy.
Amy Winehouse (Lives of the Musicians) is out now via Laurence King Publishing