The Very Best Of Amy Winehouse, Lyric Writer

Amy Winehouse

Although we’re all still painfully aware that Amy Winehouse is no longer with us, it’s only just beginning to become clear exactly what a loss she has been as a musical talent. And not because her next album would’ve been a big cash cow for her record company either. Her life was raked over endlessly by the tabloids, the Motown and jazz arrangements of her songs pored over by singers looking for a new sound, her voice fetishised by a million cover versions, and yet it’s her lyric-writing which truly put her ahead of the pack.

By which I means she’s not just the girl who had the sarcastic song about saying no, no, no.

You can tell Amy was a hip hop fan. Not just cos of the references to Slick Rick and Nas in her lyrics, but her pugnacious words, which often detailed some fairly grimy circumstances without flinching or currying favor with the listener. And the playful way she used language fused jazz elegance with rap dexterity. Oh sure, she could point fingers, but often her worst enemy was the mirror, and she knew it.

Here are just a few of our favorites, in no particular order. Be warned, there’s some swearing to come:

“Love Is A Losing Game”

Not the first time love has been compared to gambling, but perhaps not with the desperate twist that Amy gives it here. “Love Is A Losing Game” is the Gambler’s Anonymous, handing-over-your-entire-paycheck account: the despondent addict’s view of a mug’s game that she can’t stop herself from playing. And there is no hope of redemption or final blessing from Lady Luck, just pain upon self-loathing upon pain:

“Over futile odds, and laughed at by the gods
And now the final frame. Love is a losing game.”

Ow. Ow. Ow.

“F*** Me Pumps”

For once, Amy’s truth gun has someone else in its sights. A song aimed at the girls who go out clubbing, in the vain hope they’ll snag a rich or successful boyfriend, and wonder why it doesn’t quite work out. She’s not unsympathetic, but still brutal:

“Without girls like you there’d be no fun
We’d go to the club and not see anyone
Without girls like you there’s no nightlife
All those men just go home to their wives”

It’s the flipside to every 50 Cent lyric ever, isn’t it?

“Me And Mr Jones”

A song of love and friendship to the rapper Nas – real name Nasir Jones – which we could probably quote in its entirety. However, the two standout moments are the ones you can’t play on the radio. First and foremost, “what kind of f***ery is this?” is a line that people are still going be referencing in 100 years. It’s a delightful phrase, a six-word temper tantrum, and it’s the first line of the first verse of the song. Then there’s the racially playful “aside from Sammy you’re my best black Jew,” which could be offensive, unless sung from a Jewish girl to a black man, as indeed it is here. And besides who doesn’t love Sammy Davis Junior?

“Stronger Than Me”

Ah, if only she knew what was to come. It’s fine to have written a song about the problems of having a boyfriend who crumples like a wet envelope at the first sign of trouble, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to live it afterwards. Suffice to say the lines “I’ve forgotten all of young love’s joy, I feel like a lady, and you my lady boy” stopped being remotely funny soon after this song came out.

“You Know I’m No Good”

Oh my good Lord, this is where it gets grisly. “I’m in the tub, you on the seat,” sings our hapless heroine, “lick your lips as I soak my feet. Then you notice little carpet burn. My stomach drops and my guts churn.” And that’s verse three. In verse one she’s given her true love a special and delightful treat, because he’s jealous that she’s with someone else, in verse two she finds she can’t orgasm with her current boyfriend unless she thinks of him. But by verse three it’s all gone wrong again: “I cheated myself, like I knew I would,” she laments, “I told you I was trouble, you know that I’m no good.”

Excuse me for a second, I just need to wash my mind.

“Take The Box”

When Beyonce writes a song about kicking her unfaithful man out, it’s all empowerment and self-righteousness. Amy’s take is slightly less controlled. She goes round to his flat, pressing all the buttons on the intercom so she can be buzzed into the building. She visits his bedroom, it still smells of him. She’s giving him back all the gifts he bought her, everything goes in the box, but she can’t take back her heart.

“Cos you were so beautiful before today. But then I heard what you got to say…man that was ugly”

“Back To Black”

As with a lot of these songs, there are too many amazing and vivid lyrical moments to choose from, but if you had to select the one line which sells the entire song – another litany of grubby behaviour set against spiralling feelings of addictive and forbidden love – it would be the devastatingly deadpan “we only said goodbye with words.”  It says it all without drama or hyperbole. All the anguish that comes before any after that line, the first in the chorus, arrives because of that one situation. They had to part, but they didn’t want to. And then the killer, the slowing gravitational force with which she sings “you go on back to her, and I go baaacck…tooo…blaaaaack.”

What’s your favorite Amy line? Tell us here:

Fraser McAlpine

Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 15 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME, Guardian and MSN. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Radio 2.

He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage.

Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic

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