What does it mean when a pop star sings about other artists a lot? Once in a while and it’s a nice shout-out, an acknowledgement of influences. But when your work is as strewn with references as Amy Winehouse’s was, it becomes something else.
I’ve been immersing myself in Amy’s albums again since she died, and it’s one of the things that’s jumped out at me afresh. Time after time she namechecks the people who’ve made the music she loves. I hate it when artists are interviewed and they say ‘Oh I haven’t really been listening to any other music, just concentrating on my own stuff.’ BLAH BLAH BLAH. Amy was the opposite. Open up her debut album and you’ll see a picture of piles and piles of CDs along with a list of thank-yous in which musicians she’d never met outnumber family members by 29 to 2. And we hear stories of her going down the pub, putting the jukebox on, just standing in front of it, drinking in the music. She’s a proper music fan alright, like us. Let’s look at who she loved.
It starts just a couple of tracks into Frank, on You Sent Me Flying: Amy’s got a crush on a guy in a Beastie Boys tee and she lends him some Outsidaz and (new!) Erykah Badu. She understands how sharing music with someone you fancy makes things personal, and about how carefully you choose what to share, knowing it’ll inform what they think about you and how you hope it’ll forge a link.
Moody’s Mood For Love, as a James Moody cover, is a reference by default, but Amy’s delivery of the line ‘Would you come on hit me,
you can blow now if you want to, I’m through,’ brings an unmistakeable brassy innuendo into the equation. She understands that music can be sex.
In the aching break-up swoon of Take The Box, angrily returning gifts to her man, Amy sings ‘Frank’s in there and I don’t care’. Of course she does care, as her beautiful, conflicted delivery makes clear. We know that the name Frank refers to Frank Sinatra — we’re always hearing about Amy listening to his records with her dad. And we can assume that calling the album Frank is a reference to him as well as to the raw emotional honesty in her songwriting. Although you could also point out it’s the name of the government’s high-profile drug awareness campaign which was launched earlier the same year. Or that it’s also the name of Amy’s little doggie who features in the cover art. Anyway — she understands how music becomes a part of you and how giving it up is a powerful token.
October Song, now, and a rare chance to hear a popstar singing about a dead pet. Amy imagines her late canary ‘reborn like Sarah Vaughan’ while interpolating the melody of Lullaby of Birdland. You can see what she’s done there. She understands how music can be a eulogy but be as light and happy as the life you’re celebrating too. Adele paraphrased a line from this song to pay tribute to Amy on her death. Make of that what you will.
In Rehab, Amy famously tells the world that she’d rather stay at home listening to Ray Charles than change her ways, and that there’s nothing anyone can teach her that she can’t learn from Donny Hathaway. She understands how music is something you can lose yourself in, and how you can use it to self-medicate a broken heart.
And finally the big one: Me and Mr Jones is about how much Amy’s looking forward to seeing Nas at a gig in Brixton (she never uses his first name, but references his surname in the title, along with their shared birthday ‘9 and 14’ and his daughter Destiny in the lyrics). Amy and Nas are already linked behind the scenes by producer Salaam Remi, to the extent that the same Incredible Bongo Band-sampling beat underpins Nas’s Made You Look and Amy’s In My Bed. But this song is all about Amy the fan. No man’s going to stand between her and the music she loves, not like when she missed Slick Rick. And along the way she compares Nas to Sammy Davis Junior, too.
Amy’s proud of the music she loves. She understands how it defines you, how it arouses you and becomes part of you and pays tribute to you and heals you and compels you. And the music she made herself did all those things too. You can’t ask for any more from a music fan.