What sound hath Amy Winehouse wrought?

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

It’s been a year and a half since Amy Winehouse caught the ears of American listeners. Now, there’s a new crop of young singer-songwriter-types tapping the well of old- and new-school sounds. If Amy was already a throwback, what’s so new about this latest crop?

Guest: Takeaway contributor Mary Elizabeth Williams

Contributor's notes:

What hath Amy Winehouse wrought? A scant year and a half ago, the beehived Brit shook the music charts with an ode to defiant excess, a flat-out refusal to clean up her act, set to a Motown-ish finger-snapping beat.

"Rehab" was a smash, and the 24-year-old singer's album, "Back to Black," has now sold almost 10 million units around the world, making it one of biggest hits of the decade. With her torchy vocals and tortured lyrics, Winehouse seemed to be the direct descendent of '60s era icons like Ronnie Spector, but with a distinctly contemporary sensibility. Her Ghostface Killah remix of "You Know I’m No Good," for instance, was a blissfully sinful mashup of soul and rap. Now, in Winehouse’s wake, a new crop of retro-modern young women are dominating the charts, putting a stinging new spin on a sweetly nostalgic sound.

No one’s scorching more musical terrain lately than a young Californian whose career began in Christian contemporary music. Katy Perry’s "I Kissed a Girl" is the song of the summer, a flirty walk on the bi-curious side that perched atop the Billboard and iTunes charts in June and has remained stubbornly in the lead position ever since. Perry, a dark-haired beauty who looks like she just stepped off a mud flap, has raised eyebrows and temperatures alike with her "One of the Boys" album. She’s taken heat from the Christian community for her sexualized image, and from the gay and lesbian groups for songs like "Ur So Gay," a blistering dis on a metrosexual ex. But the backlash is drowned out in the din of clever hooks and unstoppable sales.

Perry’s far from the only comely young rebel out there. Duffy, a chirpy blonde singer–songwriter from Wales, has already sold more than three million albums this year with her girl-group inspired debut "Rockferry." And if you’ve managed to avoid its relentlessly catchy anthem, "Mercy," it must be because you’ve been actively trying not to hear it.

Or maybe you’ve been listening to Kate Nash, the bubbly British artist whose recent UK number one, "Made of Bricks," included lyrics about mouthwash and songs with unprintable titles about bad boyfriends.

Then there’s Little Jackie, the new venture from Brooklyn’s Imani Coppola and Adam Pallin. On "The Stoop," Coppola takes on race and celebrity culture, she smokes "28 Butts," she even, a la Katy Perry, considers kissing girls. The sound is as heavy on old-school strings and orchestration as anything The Supremes ever threw down, but the bold, confident and frequently very funny lyrics make it fresh. "The Stoop" is easily the best album of the year so far.

It would be tempting to dismiss the new girl sound as simply derivative of Winehouse, who is herself not lacking in obvious influences. But after the past few years, and the glut of squeaky clean teens and prefab Pussycats, maybe audiences are just ready for something new: young women who can adeptly write and play their own music and who have, significantly, cultivated their followings on MySpace and their Web sites. They also all straddle different genres cannily, mixing '60s soul with contemporary dance and hip-hop, mixing genres and eras with unabashed relish. And sure, it doesn’t hurt that they’re all so soft and pretty. But the greater appeal may be their startling frankness. They smoke and drink too much, they complain about men who don’t satisfy them and contemplate women who might, they cheat, they fight. It may not be role model stuff, but it’s real. And if it sells a few billion units along the way, it may be because bad girls finish first.

— Mary Elizabeth Williams

Contributors:

Corey Takahashi and Mary Elizabeth Williams

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