The music community's response to losing gifted British soul vocalist Amy Winehouse at the tender (and fateful) age of 27 has only just begun. Many will continue speaking eloquently about her voice -- notably actor friend Russell Brand has done so, and so has our colleague Maura Johnston -- and let's be clear that it's not just the wavering vibrato and cigarette-kissed cadences but her voice.
Winehouse started (and finished) conversations about her life with nearly every song she recorded. From party girl condemnations ("Fuck Me Pumps"), self-sabatoge ("You Know That I'm No Good"), and, natch, the song that'll forever be her calling card, "Rehab," there was rarely an artist so keenly aware of herself and honest about herself -- all while remaining an inscrutable figure that kept us (and the U.K. press corps, especially) guessing. Like fellow 27-year-olds Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, and Robert Johnson -- and Otis Redding and Buddy Holly and countless others who made an impact quickly, before vanishing -- Amy Winehouse's destiny will be a long tail of art remembering her.
A fitting entry to this conversation is M.I.A., who has released a pre-Vicki Leekx demo titled "27."
Stylistically, there's very little that would tie these two artists. One performed a brash, painted-eyelid face-lift on vintage soul, and the other collates and deconstructs global beats while sewing on patches of the political landscape of her source material along the way. But then again, both are loved/reviled for creating art (and a persona along with it) on their own terms.
Over a spooky, glitchy beat that is blacker than her usual fare, M.I.A. unfolds a circular note pattern that is unmistakably her own. She gives details of an unnamed friend who blew money on "a mountain of drugs" and couldn't kick.
If M.I.A. and Winehouse ever really did have a drink together in an "English tavern," as the song suggests, there's likely a good bit they could have had to say to each other about the evils of truffle fries and paparazzi-documented late-night walks. (Of course, there are other lyrics like "your papa passed so sudden" that suggest this song is not directly about Winehouse.)
Still, a line like "I wished I was that clever" is where the mind of anyone who adored Winehouse's music eventually goes when dealing with the divide between mere mortals and the tortured souls that become our obsessions. She had a voice that perhaps she didn't even want once she realized what it would make her say about herself.
And thus, "27" speaks volumes for troubled creatives and the self-fulfilling prophecies of their work, most of whom will never be famous. But many wrestle with a gift that can ultimately be their undoing, the widening crack in the mirror, their black swan, and a gateway to destructive addiction.
Just as the Notorious B.I.G. had to be Ready to Die for his art, Amy Winehouse's music forced her Back to Black.