On Halloween of 2007, Amy Winehouses were everywhere. Earlier that year, the British singer made a splash at Coachella. Her single “Rehab” had cracked the U.S. top ten in June and would become one of the inescapable songs of the summer. A few months later, in early ’08, she would win five Grammy Awards, including Record of the Year, Song of the Year and Best New Artist.
That Halloween, though, Winehouse had achieved next-level stardom. You could see that in the party people decked out in beehive hairdos and thick, winged strokes of black, liquid eyeliner, their bra straps slipping from under tight, white tank tops. To be a pop star who spawns a Halloween costume—like Prince or Cher or Madonna before her—is to become an icon. Amy Winehouse did that.
More than a decade later, I remembered that Halloween while walking through the Grammy Museum. Beyond Black: The Style of Amy Winehouse, which opened in January and runs through April 13, presents items from the late singer’s wardrobe, pieces of her music collection and a smattering of her personal notes and handwritten lyrics. The exhibition essentially breaks down that moment when Winehouse became iconic by exposing her own influences, from fashion to film to music. It’s a sensitive, if not restrained, portrait of an artist whose life was cut tragically short. She died of alcohol poisoning in 2011 when she was only 27.
The folks at the Grammy Museum had a Winehouse exhibition on their minds for years, but the components didn’t come together until about six months ago, with help from the Amy Winehouse Foundation, as well as Winehouse’s friends Naomi Parry, who was also her stylist, and Catriona Gourlay.
“It was always about the style,” Nicholas Vega, director of curatorial affairs, at the Grammy Museum, says of the show’s development. “That was at the forefront of the exhibition.”
The Amy Winehouse look was an amalgamation of various influences, from ’60s girl groups to late 20th century Britpop and U.S. hip-hop. Her taste included both high-end designer dresses with a sexy, slightly vintage flair and streetwear brands like Fred Perry (with whom she collaborated) and Adidas. Her cosmetics staples included Rimmel eyeliner and her scent came from a combination of Laura Mercier body butter and Givenchy perfume. Her music collection was similarly eclectic, with items in the exhibition ranging from Frank Sinatra to Madness to Nas. “She pulled things and if she liked it, it was part of her wardrobe,” says Vega. “It was the same with music. If she liked it, she claimed it.”
Amid the body-conscious dresses, high heels, and casual separates that comprise the bulk of the exhibition are the late singer’s notes. There are lyrics for songs that were never released, calendar entries and shopping lists. One page, though, caught my attention. It was titled “Fame Ambitions,” a 14-entry list of goals that included:
“To open Dolly’s Diner”
“To be photographed by David LaChappelle [sic]”
“To make a movie with Steve Buscemi in it.”
It’s an interesting peek into the aesthetics, music, and films that influenced her. Dolly’s Diner, a placard elsewhere in the show reveals, was to be a restaurant where she could be a waitress on roller skates. It’s also the name of a song that she never recorded or released. Among her notes is a sketch of the Waffle Waitress, a character dressed in a low-cut, form-fitting uniform hinting at a style Winehouse would popularize in her short career.
In some cases, she did achieve her goals; David LaChapelle directed the video for “Tears Dry on Their Own.” Others would be left unmet. Unfortunately for all of us, there is no movie with Buscemi and Winehouse.
What you won’t see in the exhibition are the tabloid headlines that followed the singer between the success of her sophomore album, Back to Black, and her death in 2011 at the age of 27. Winehouse’s rise to fame coincided with monumental shifts in technology that would define the public’s relationship to pop culture in the first decade of the 21st century. Some of those changes, like the influence of music blogs and iPod playlists, may have played a role in her popularity. At the same time, though, there was a growing dark side of internet culture, with gossip sites scrutinizing the lives of celebrities—particularly young women—on a daily basis and capitalizing on the very real struggles of the famous.
In January, Parry and Gourlay participated in a live interview led by journalist Eve Barlow. On stage, Winehouse’s friends gave a little bit of insight into that part of the singer’s life. Gourlay noted that people would try to get a reaction from Winehouse in an attempt to take photos of her. “Some of the stuff that people used to say to her in the street was so savage,” she said. “It was horrible to watch.”
By focusing on the style, the Grammy Museum presents an image of Amy Winehouse that’s perhaps more substantial than the one depicted in the press during her lifetime. This is the story of an artist and her creative process. It’s a story of the inspirations that fueled her and how she applied them to her own work. And it’s the story of her dreams, some of which, sadly, would go unrealized.
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