Is Amy Winehouse really looking for someone "Stronger than Me"? Holly Combe argues that Winehouse’s debut album presents a somewhat traditional view of heterosexual relationships mixed with a couple of progressive moments. Yet despite its flaws, the music can’t be faulted.
Ever heard of Amy Winehouse? It’s surprising how many people haven’t, considering that she was nominated for two Brit awards (‘Amy Who?’ seemed to be a common response to this news) and that her debut album, Frank has maintained a steady presence in the UK album chart for the last eight months. Wise young chanteuses seem to be very much in vogue right now. On seeing the initial adverts, I imagined this album would become a tasteful must-have for the average cafetiere-owning, Habitat-Shopping, dinner-party thrower. Thinking about it, retaining an air of relative obscurity probably helps to ensure such status.
Winehouse released her new single ‘In my Bed’ in early April but, so far, the most well known track on the album is probably ‘Stronger Than Me’. This is the one where she berates a boyfriend who always puts her ‘in control’ and doesn’t ‘live up to his role’ as ‘The Man’. Well, as I’ve said before, this tell-it-like-it-is (was) stuff is very now. Like Carrie from Sex and the City and her scathing witticisms about Conceptual Art, being ‘politically incorrect’ and impatient with anything alternative is the height of cool. Indeed, it is actually perfectly correct according to current fashion. If you want to impress your dinner party guests, shocking them with how refreshingly down to earth you are will work an absolute treat.
So I wasn’t the slightest bit surprised when I first heard about those lyrics. No, this was definitely not an album that appealed to Ms. Combe’s high-minded inclinations, though I would obviously need to investigate it (in the name of research, you understand).
I first looked at this album back in October and noticed it was very well packaged and image conscious. (I also noted the presence of a song called ‘Fuck-Me Pumps’ and guessed this would probably have a naughty appeal to any play-it-safe fashion-sluts who want to make their collection a bit more ‘edgy’.) Looking through the lyrics, I found various trendy references. I learnt that the box in ‘Take the Box’ contains the Moschino bra Amy’s ex bought her ‘last Christmas’. ‘You Sent Me Flying’, sees Amy launching straight in with a reference to lending ‘Outsidaz’ and her ‘new Badu’ to a man she fancies (who we later learn wears Diesel jeans). In ‘October Song’, she name-drops Sarah Vaughn and, in keeping with this, the booklet shows a nice glossy picture of Amy’s very credible and eclectic CD collection. There’s also an interesting picture of her rolling an invisible spliff (well, either that or picking a hair off her skirt but seeing as that doesn’t have quite the same iconicity, I’ve gone for the first interpretation).
Other pictures include Amy putting on her make-up, Amy looking in her handbag (against the backdrop of a lightly graffiti covered alleyway) and Amy playing pool. The image is of someone who likes all the apparent fripperies of Being-a-Girl but who knows how to keep up with The Lads too. In other words, we’re talking about the perfectly balanced image. Just like the much sought after ‘mostly B’s’ archetype in those quizzes in Cosmo and Just Seventeen. Nice one Amy!
By virtue of everything about this album being so right in terms of universal appeal, I could see it was almost certainly set for MoR status. It was not for a snob like me (i.e someone who feels very smug to be the only person in all three of the households she’s lived in the past 2 and a half years not to own a copy of ‘White Ladder’ by David Gray).
My resistance didn’t last long. It was some days later that I got my first listen of Frank. I was in a record shop and, before I asked about it, honestly thought it was some gorgeous old jazz-tinged soul album I should have heard by now. Super efficient economist that I am, I did my usual checks for the cheapest price and then, feeling like a fashion-victim, went back and bought it.
So what about those ‘new-man’ bashing lyrics? Well, it’s certainly curious that Amy tells her rebellious boyfriend that he sounds as if he’s reading from ‘some other tired script’ when she’s actually advocating a return to the most tired script of all. It seems that if you want to be seen as a Strong Woman, you’d better get busy at extolling the virtues of macho-man and stressing that a sensitive guy could never be for you because you’d just ‘walk all over him’. How often do we hear that one? The diva singing that she needs
someone ‘man enough’ to take her on? The standard seems to be that wherever a woman’s at, she requires a man who will be perceived to be a few steps ahead. Someone she can look up to. If you express a liking for men who don’t conform to this set-up, you must be a right weed. In fact you must be positively lowly.
However, if you put aside the backlash-fuelled element of character assassination in this assessment, this idea becomes somewhat more progressive. The diva above may be driven by convention to put her preferences into an old-fashioned context but what she is really looking for is someone similar to her. The popularity of the contrived ‘strong woman seeking stronger man’ set-up suggests that the traditional idea of polarised complimentary roles for couples is flawed.
I’d say Amy Winehouse is actually illuminating an important truth about compatibility. For example, in ‘What is it About Men?’ we hear that animal aggression is her ‘downfall’ and in ‘In My Bed’ we see her criticising a rejected lover for not being able to ‘separate sex and emotion’. In ‘Amy, Amy, Amy’ she asks ‘where’s my moral parallel?’ and it’s true that, for all her ‘feeling like a lady’ in ‘Stronger than Me’, she actually comes across as a tough-minded, libidinous woman wanting a tough-minded, libidinous man (albeit one who is prepared to go that extra mile and posture as being ‘stronger’ than her).
Instead of trying to change the man who always ‘wants to talk it through’ and asking him dumb questions like ‘are you gay?’ (as if his sexual preference has anything to do with it) she’d be better off seeking out someone more suited to her straightforward tastes.
Life is never simple for us apparently weedy progressive types. If you reject the path that many others choose to follow, getting some truly gratifying sex-action (especially if it’s with the other sex) often only happens after plenty of assertive sex-talk. While the so-called Real Women and Men are out answering the call of the wild, we’re busy doing our seduction by seminar. We liberals may be harder to shock or manipulate than many of those girls and boys about town but our personal threshold for no-questions-asked rough and readiness is, admittedly, often far lower.
By conventional society’s standards, that makes us a load of wimps.
Not that I let mere sexual politics stop me enjoying Frank. In true liberal form, I have to say I happily crooned along to it in a hazy state of rapture for most of the day after I got it. I then listened to it on the bus to work the day after that and didn’t mind at all that I could picture it being played in the houses I passed. Neither did it bother me that it will probably get arbitrarily played in crap TV dramas. After all, it’s packed full of musical treats and moments of the kind of perfect emotional pitch that make any thought you’re having at that moment seem heart-rendingly profound, however banal that thought may be. ‘You Sent Me Flying’ is so gorgeous that even getting your coat on to go and buy some milk feels like the hopeful prelude to a wonderful profound adventure.
Winehouse occasionally uses cliched language (in ‘Cherry’, her father is described as ‘stubborn as a mule’) but gets away with it through sheer charisma, lyrical candidness andthe quality of her music. Arguably, it’s that sense of perfection that makes those machismo-loving lyrics so irksome. There’s no doubt that people are going to sit up and listen to this provocative woman and that she deserves to be challenged (as Gary Mulholland said in his review of ‘Frank’ in the Observer, this is the sort of album that makes him want to have an argument with the singer).
It also has to be said that not all of the lyrics are of the ‘Me-Jane/You-Tarzan’ variety. ‘You Sent Me Flying’, for all its wistful angst, has a real sense of perspective, resilience and self-awareness. ‘In My Bed’ is a cruel account of a dead relationship where Amy tells an ex-boyfriend that the only time she holds his hand is to ‘get the angle right’. This is arguably the best line on the album. (Any reference to hand-delivered pleasures certainly ticks my feminist box anyway. Getting a good finger bang may be nothing new but you rarely see any mention of this recreation in a popular cultural context.)
When Amy says that her man has been around ‘7 years longer’ than her, it is apparent that her arguably lazy wish for her man to be ‘stronger’ than her is partly due to their age-gap. Judging by the further age-clues and the tone of the words, it is also probable that she’s addressing the same guy again in ‘Help Yourself’. For all the inadequacies she perceives in him, she obviously has a major affiliation with this bloke. He’s obviously not all bad is he?
I would urge any impressionable young men not to take Amy Winehouse’s complaints about her ‘lady boy’ as gospel. I’d say that the kind of man who doesn’t live up to the role she holds in such esteem suits plenty of the rest of us just fine. In fact, he more than suits us. He’s the kind of man we want to get off with (the media saying ‘macho is back’ is just a temporary setback as far as I’m concerned.)
Maybe, like Amy’s man, he likes to talk. Maybe he doesn’t want to be a big-shot at work. Maybe he’s sexually quirky rather than basic and boring. Maybe he likes to wear make-up. Maybe his role models are not all men. Maybe he isn’t scared of anything ‘gay’ (both in the real sense of the word and the mislabelled sense). There are many possibilities. I support any of these men in their challenge to the boundaries of manhood. For me, mindless conformity and sex appeal just don’t mix.
Of course, there are plenty of women out there who genuinely do find the old order a hot and horny prospect. Thankfully, for them, there are enough men about who honestly feel the same way about it. If that’s what turns you on, I can only say ‘enjoy’. Just remember that we’re not all into that particular carry-on. Call me a weed if you like, but I’m bold enough to say that one size really doesn’t fit all.