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Friday, February 29, 2008

SF-J on Winehouse In The New Yorker: Aural Blackface!

posted by on February 29 at 13:30 PM

Sasha Frere-Jones new piece in this week’s New Yorker about Amy Winehouse is pretty good.

As with most of his writing, he does get some thing right. Like this:

I bought Winehouse’s first album, “Frank,” in 2004 at a Heathrow Airport music kiosk. I listened to it on the plane home and dropped it in a garbage can on the way to baggage claim.

and this last bit at the end (which I think is particularly funny/true):

One effective summing up of her style can be seen in a YouTube video of her performing the album’s title track, labelled “Amy Winehouse performing drunk or high. Your guess!” It may be neither—it is Winehouse’s signature, and if she can detach it from the past and keep writing songs like “Rehab” there will be nothing surprising about having her around for a long time. Other than having her around.

But he also makes some stomach turning comparisons, for example:

The singing style heard on “Frank” started years ago—Lauryn Hill, the dopey singer-songwriter Jewel, and Joni Mitchell are all glossed in this approach—and has filtered down through singers like Nelly Furtado, Winehouse, and a currently rising star, Sia.

Excuse me. I don’t want to come off all Christopher Frizzelle or nuthin’, but Joni Mitchell deserves more respect and credit than this jab. Comparing Jewel, Hill, Furtado and Sia to Mitchell. Uh-uh. Them’s is fighting words, bitch.

Further he goes on to compare Sharon Jones and Winehouse’s live performances with the same band, The Dap-Kings. I am one of those folks who think Jones is actually kinda boring and too retro. I prefer Winehouses very modern slap in the face kind of homage to Jones’ pastiche. So I suppose it’s just a matter of taste.

But I can’t help but make a connection to the fact that Jones is a black singer singing black music, and SF-J finds no offense in her “re-creations”. But Winehouse, being white, nearly becomes “minstrelsy”, and is only saved by her garbled marble-mouthed singing style.

His description:

Listen to the mid-tempo shuffle “You Know I’m No Good” and hear how she elongates and deforms the word “worst.” Is she channelling a little-known blues singer? Is she hammered?

And the caption I assume he wrote for the accompanying photograph of Winehouse on a bed with a ciggie hanging out of her mouth?

Winehouse’s voice can sound like aural blackface, but her range and variety resist definition. Photograph by Harry Benson.

I guess I’d just like to read an intelligent piece by SF-J that didn’t in some way entangle his own garbled and marble-mouthed views on race into his critiques. Is it even possible?

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Fleet foxes are best new music on pitchfork right now.

Posted by clarkj | February 29, 2008 1:33 PM

sorry if i'm telling something you already know, but sf-j is a dude. do feel free to call him a bitch when he makes mistakes in his writing, which is often.

i can respect that he wrote this article as no other national music journalist would (3 stars is the new disparaging remark). too bad he's wrong at points and his punch has no weight behind it, but at least he tried.

also, i said this before, but it remains to be the truth: everything you write about music is taken with a grain of salt when you were once a member of a shitty band like ui.

Posted by cosby | February 29, 2008 2:13 PM

to be clear, 'you', the member of ui, refers to sf-j and not terry miller. as far as i know, terry miller was not in the nyc shit sandwich known as ui.

Posted by cosby | February 29, 2008 2:15 PM

I thought he was pretty much right on. There's a young audience for this kind of stuff that doesn't know what real soul singing sounds like. She THINKS she's singing soul, or jazz, or whatever it is, but she's all over the place; she's Christina Aguilera with better taste. It IS a pastiche, and it IS aural blackface.

SFJ is getting better and better lately; he's the only mainstream critic worth reading right now.

Posted by Fnarf | February 29, 2008 2:29 PM

@2 and 3:

i know he's a man,i just like calling him my bitch.

but agreed, absolute terrible writing. I really don't understand how TNY keeps publishing his crap. I think it's cause if they fired him for someone who wrote about real relevant artists, he'd cry racism.

Lately he's only written about hip-hop, without the understanding that it's DEAD. sales and ingenuity-wise.

poor man. poor deluded man.

Posted by terry Miller | February 29, 2008 2:45 PM

I admit Amy Winehouse is an exceptional singer. But I cringe every time I see her in the news. Speaking as a kid who was devastated by Kurt Cobain's death, I think it's extremely irresponsible for "The-powers-that-be" to continue to give her the limelight.

Once they figured out she was a junkie, she should've been shelved and left alone to toil by herself on the independant scene. I wonder if she'd be as big. They shouldn't be marketing her and her story to youth culture as much they do.

God I feel so old typing that. :(

This woman is not a step-up from the Britney Spears role model archetype. More like a step to the right....

Posted by godsactionfigure | February 29, 2008 2:58 PM

Hip-hop? He writes about POP music. His recent articles have been about Winehouse, Roxy Music, Mary J. Blige, Kate Nash, Led Zeppelin, and Cat Power. Where's all this hip-hop? He's a good, nimble, wide-ranging critic.

Posted by Fnarf | February 29, 2008 3:09 PM

Kool Herc.

Snoopy Dogg.

Hip hop photography.

Soulja Boy.

On grime.


Dude 'n' Nem.

Lil Wayne.

i'm sure you get the picture. those were all within the last 6 months.

And I would say mjb is half soul/ half hip hop, but she sold her soul to the devil after 411.

Also, he wrote slams of indie rock claiming it wasn't black enough (?!?!), a terrible piece about johanna newsom and his thing about the "gorillaz-go-peking-opera" was so blatheringly fawning as to be cringe-worthy.

Posted by terry Miller | February 29, 2008 4:19 PM

I thought this article was actually pretty good. Not black enough, but good.

Posted by Eric Grandy | February 29, 2008 4:24 PM

SFJ is one of the worst, most asisnine writers in the history of music journalism. I would take a Jann Wenner five star review of a Mick Jagger solo album more seriously than anything written by that tool.

Posted by Nicole | February 29, 2008 5:49 PM

Calling Joni Mitchell an antecedent along with Jewel et. al. isn't the same thing as equating Joni Mitchell with Jewel et. al. by any means.

Posted by Matos W.K. | February 29, 2008 6:30 PM

Also, editors tend to write photo captions, not columnists.

Posted by Matos W.K. | February 29, 2008 6:30 PM

It's true that editors usually write captions, but the content is usually something either objective or taken from the article. If not, the author probably suggested it. For an editor to invent something like "aural blackface" would be pretty heavyhanded.
Either way, it's not like the caption's sentiment goes against the article's.

Posted by E | March 1, 2008 2:08 AM


who gives a fuck if people don't know what "real" soul singing sounds like. doesn't mean they'd like it if they heard it, and it doesn't mean they can't like winehouse

and who gives a fuck if amy winehouse sounds like christina aguilera with better taste (funny, BTW).

xtina hearts dj premier, and since then has been aight with me

Posted by ndrwmtsn | March 1, 2008 1:28 PM

Personally, I think SFJ gets this mostly right, and I generally like his writing.

I know it's pop music and the kids probably eat it up, but I just find Whinehouse's chaotic, troubled-girl archetype so tired. It kind of bums me out that so many people seem to eat it up. It's so typically British music tabloid pop.

But they do eat it up. And it's probably a good thing too, because if you took that away, there wouldn't be much left, just a not particularly interesting pomo pastiche on girl groups and soul. It's music that makes "I'm am Shelby Lynne" seem path breaking by comparison.

As for Sharon Jones, she's definitely on the retro side. But that's the point. She's also like what, 52 years old, on the young side of the classic soul moment, but perhaps one of the last people who grew up during that period to come to prominence making soul music.

She's also one of the best live acts I've seen in quite some time. It's comfort food for sure. It doesn't have pretenses to being more. And it tastes fucking good.

Posted by j-lon | March 1, 2008 9:13 PM

controversy sells magazines... it also increases blog post hits... and free alt-weekly readership.

welcome to the big huge POP LIFE CIRCLE JERK...

Posted by circle jerk | March 2, 2008 8:55 PM

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