Amy Winehouse: The 27 Club and Her Place in Music History

Chris Payne

Though the troubled UK singer seems to fit the bill for rock 'n' roll's fabled 27 Club, Amy Winehouse will almost surely face some resistance.

Music journalists, rock critics, and casual music historians like to tell stories. They like to frame narratives, paint parallels, and place our heroes into the framework they’ve invented. And though this is very much a part of the rock ‘n' roll tradition, it’s foolish to assume the rock stars are knowingly playing along. The “27 club” is one such narrative, involving a curiously high number of rock ‘n' roll legends whose mercurial brushes with glory crashed and burned at that early age. Through dozens of names from here and there have been tossed in, the club holds a select few “core members”: Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, and original Rolling Stone Brian Jones.

But why 27? Perhaps there’s something inherently dangerous and sexy about an artist, particularly a rock star, going out on top. Twenty-seven is a crooked number, with the artist old enough to have pumped out a classic, but young enough to have avoided the myriad trappings of the inevitable aging process. The club’s lineage can be loosely traced to pioneering bluesman Robert Johnson, who died in 1938 of a mysterious strychnine poisoning. Once Buddy Holly died less than two years into his rapid rise to fame (albeit not at 27), music fans, too, were introduced to the tragedy and legend of the dead rock star.

Was Amy Winehouse aware of the 27 Club? Who knows. Once the dust settles from the sudden tragedy of her death on July 23, it will come time to decide where to place Winehouse in pop music's historical narrative. For an artist whose creative output was so greatly overshadowed by a volatile public persona, making the final call on Amy seems a looming challenge. There are those quick to jump atop the high horse, coming down on Winehouse for her lavish ways and alleged “wasted talent”. Others will likely hold her output (or lack thereof) against her. She produced just two records (only one was released prominently, 2007’s Grammy-winning Back to Black) and her live show -- especially in her latter days -- could have been described, at best, as hit-or-miss.

What’s hurting Winehouse more than anything is that she doesn’t fit the 27 Club’s traditional archetype. In other words, she’s not male, didn’t pass last century, and wasn’t a rock musician. The club did welcome Joplin, who may have had the most in common with Winehouse, given her affinity for the blues and her heroin-related downfall. But rock purists (especially American ones) can be ridiculously biased against musicians who didn’t perform with guitars, didn’t record during the 1960s and '70s, and (in many cases) didn’t happen to be male. Toss in the fact she was British, her unsightly public image, her explicit lyrics, and the amount of Grammys she was very quickly tossed, and you have a recipe for some serious critical backlash.

Let’s not forget how Winehouse made out like a bandit at the 2008 Grammys. Among her five awards, “Rehab” was hailed the previous year’s top single, Winehouse the year’s best new artist, and her long-player went down in history as one of the four records to ludicrously fall to Herbie Hancock’s album of Joni Mitchell covers for the big prize (which, ultimately, is an argument for another day). Despite the generation gap, Winehouse’s record flaunted a sincere reverence for old timey jazz, along with her obvious vocal influences, from seminal jazz singer Billie Holliday to contemporary soul queen Sharon Jones. The Grammys are notorious for giving an unfair advantage to artists that sound old timey, though Winehouse’s flair for the past seemed like more of a personal, artistic necessity than polite tribute. Even if she is ultimately shunned from this fabled club, the fact she met her end in eerily similar fashion to Holliday should only add to her legend in the years ahead.

Though Winehouse released precious little music during the five years following Black’s release, her influence resounded over the pop charts, both in America and overseas. Once specializing in rock bands, it appears the United Kingdom’s most commercially viable musical export has become the female singer. Recently, the likes of Florence Welch, Duffy, and Adele have made major dents in the Top 40, with the latter two carrying obvious stylistic similarities to Winehouse. Adele publicly acknowledged her wish to collaborate, and though this never happened, the singer’s career will likely be compared to Winehouse’s for some time. It’s likely we’ll end up hoping Adele ultimately provides us with something Winehouse never did: longevity. If this is the case, the 23-year old London native is off to a great start. Adele already owns two commercially- and critically-acclaimed records, one more than her counterpart ever will.

While Winehouse’s uneven debut Frank may well be relegated to the dustbin of history, Back to Black deserves to hailed as a landmark pop record of the 2000s, and not simply because of the sudden death of its creator or the accolades she received during her relatively brief career. If it wasn’t canonized immediately, perhaps it was because we were simply waiting for her to outdo herself. But with an organic follow-up now impossible, Back to Black now stands as a chillingly literal narrative of the demons that led the modern-day soul queen to her demise: her nonchalant refusal of her father’s urges for a seventeen-day stint in rehab, her self-fulfilling prophecy of unavoidable infidelity, and her drug-addled relationship with Blake Fielder-Civil, who allegedly introduced her to hard drugs in the first place. In a sense, it was the preconceived rock ‘n roll lifestyle that claimed the vulnerable Winehouse from the start. Even still, the time she spent writing and recording the record’s eleven songs were said to have coincided with a rare lull in a very self-destructive period of her life. Were it not for this, Winehouse’s tale may have regrettably been told by the tabloids alone.

From a fan’s standpoint, it’s one thing to criticize Winehouse’s destructive lifestyle or the fact she brought us precious little music in her lifetime. There’s no telling how Back to Black’s follow-up would have fared had it ever seen the light of day (rumor has it early sessions with studio cohort Mark Ronson were progressing poorly) and lord knows music aficionados prize those whose catalogs value quality over quantity. Still though, it’s maddeningly frustrating to wonder what such a troubled genius could have produced under the right circumstances. To rationalize matters, perhaps we should remind ourselves that by crafting one classic, frozen-in-time record, Winehouse not only put herself in instant conversation with her idols but one-upped most of her contemporaries in the process.

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