A Hot Mess
Never mind the nice Jewish girls like Natalie Portman, the most compelling character in today’s pop culture is Amy Winehouse, a Jewish mother’s worst nightmare but still daddy’s little girl
Amy Winehouse in West London, March 17, 2009.
Shaun Curry/AFP/Getty Images
In many ways, this has been the season of the Good Jewish Girl. Next week, the proudly Jewish, defiantly curly-haired Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz—a woman “so, so excited to be Jewish”—will become the second woman to lead the Democratic National Committee. Two months ago, the elegant, shiny-haired, opportunely pregnant Natalie Portman ascended the podium at the Academy Awards to collect the Best Actress Oscar—a day before valiantly standing up to her sartorial patron in defense of her people. And Portman took this turn as our modern-day Esther shortly after 21-year-old Loren Galler Rabinowitz became the first Jew to compete for the Miss America title since Bess Myerson won in 1945. “A lot of my friends were taking a gap year in order to make money for school—taking jobs at banks and things,” Galler Rabinowitz said. “I wanted to spend a year doing public service, which I’ve always been extremely passionate about. And this year seemed like my last opportunity before jumping on the hamster wheel of med school.”
All of this earnest Jewish female goodness has been steadily contributing to a feeling in me, one I couldn’t put my finger on until recently.
Even before the Oscars, I stumbled across the celebrity-news report that a British survey had named Portman as the most desirable celebrity wife. The least desirable? Another Jewess, though bigger-haired and less refined: Amy Winehouse. Winehouse has otherwise fallen out of the news lately. According to most reports, she’s given up hard drugs. Without her daily trips to the store to buy cigarettes in dirty ballet slippers and spontaneous slap fests with concertgoers, Winehouse is now covered merely for wandering off stage during a concert in Dubai and forgetting the words to her own songs. Back in her Back to Black days, that would’ve been buried at the bottom of a Perez Hilton post, but when alcohol is her only remaining poison, this is perhaps as much as we can hope for. And yet, it is still more than we could get from Portman and that other paragon of femininity with Jewish lineage, Gwyneth Paltrow. Winehouse might throw a glass but never a dinner party.
I miss Amy Winehouse.
Just as Athena sprang fully formed from the head of Zeus, Winehouse came to us from the beehives of the Ronettes, the paradigmatic 1960s girls’ group, with a hairdo that dwarfs theirs by at least a foot. The original bad girls of rock and roll, the Ronettes wore tight, dark skirts and heavy eyeliner—as Winehouse does. But she is by no means a carbon copy of the Phil Spector-produced group, which is best-known for the exuberant single “Be My Baby.” Though she cloaked herself in the style and sound of girl groups from 40 years ago, Winehouse brought a thoroughly modern—and Jewish—sensibility to her lyrics and performances. She spoke not of love and romance, as her predecessors did, but of addictions, sex, and every Jewish girl’s favorite emotion: guilt. In her famously adenoidal voice, she sings about the men she will cheat on, those she will use up, and the ones she intends to spit out. Her songs and tone drip with regret, but also the inevitability of her bad behavior. Any astute listener knows that she’s not going to change. In fact, we hope she doesn’t.
It’s this unrepentant behavior that signals Winehouse’s place in a very different line of Jewish women—not the “nice” ones who make you chicken soup when you’re sick or assure their sons that they’re the smartest boys in the world and any woman would be lucky to marry them. Winehouse’s ancestors are the biblical vixens: Dina, who slept with Shechem; Deborah, the biblical heroine; or, more recently, Monica Lewinsky, the “portly pepperpot” (as the New York Post dubbed her) who nearly ended Bill Clinton’s presidency. These women possessed sexuality so powerful and intoxicating that it influenced national and political outcomes. Still, on “You Know I’m No Good,” Winehouse is most emphatic about another characteristic: her guilt, her seeming regret for all of the things she’s done wrong. It’s as though she’s pounding her chest in synagogue on Yom Kippur, except instead of using the shofar, she confesses her sins above the horns, beats, and drums of Mark Ronson’s production:
And for the sin of cheating on my boyfriend.
And for the sin of thinking of you when I’m trying to please a new guy.
And for the sin of cheating. Yet again.
But she is less concerned in the song with the obvious victim of her infidelity—her guy—than with the other victim of her infidelity: Amy Winehouse. The chorus begins: “I cheated myself/ Like I knew I would.” By being unfaithful she’s lost a good man (who seems to have taken her back at least once). Furthermore, the song’s title shifts some of the blame onto her lover, who should’ve known better before tangling with her. In the last verse she asks, after her boyfriend discovers “little carpet burns” on her arms, “Who really stuck the knife in first?”
Though Winehouse seems to lack the necessary stability and mentality to be a mother, she wants desperately to be one. When asked what she envisions for the future, she insisted, “I’m gonna be looking after my husband and our seven kids.” She frequently dubs herself a “nice Jewish girl,” particularly when she is questioned about her out-of-control persona, as though by stating her desire to settle down and raise children, she can smooth out her dangerous edges. If we think that somewhere down the line, she’ll calm down, sort herself out, and assume a traditional female role, she seems to be suggesting we can let her sow her wild oats without judgment.
Winehouse wasn’t always the bad girl we see warbling, drunk and off key, during live performances. She was once a freshly scrubbed Jewish teen from Northeast London. Back when she recorded her first album, Frank, at 19, she was curvier and wore her long dark hair in loose waves instead of a mammoth beehive. On that album’s cover she is smiling with a full set of teeth, wearing a pink shirt that could’ve easily been pulled from the racks of Topshop. There’s nary a tattoo in sight. True, she had been kicked out of a prestigious stage school for getting her nose pierced, but that’s hardly scaling the mountain of teenage rebellion.
Winehouse’s musical tastes were informed by her family. Her parents and her paternal grandmother, Cynthia, who once dated the legendary musician Ronnie Scott, raised her on a steady diet of jazz greats and soul singers from Billie Holiday to Ella Fitzgerald to Dinah Washington. She seems genuinely close with her father, Mitch Winehouse—the one man in Amy’s life who has lived up to the ideal man she sings about in “Stronger Than Me.” The elder Winehouse has stood by his daughter throughout ordeals with drugs and alcohol and ably manages her finances and career. He even tried to play the guilt card on her by faking a heart attack in order to force her to confront her drug-abuse problems. “I was at me wits end. I just didn’t know which way to turn. I’d tried everything,” he told the Daily Mirror. “Once I even started screaming said I was having a heart attack, but it didn’t work. Amy’s not stupid and she wanted to see my medical records proving I was actually ill.” Another Jewish father might boast about how his son got into Harvard; Mitch Winehouse talks about he couldn’t fool his addict daughter into believing he was having real chest pains. (Such nachas.)
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