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Winehouse, a voice in control of her art, but little else

By Gene Seymour, Special to CNN
Amy Winehouse enchanted people with her sunny rhythm-and-blues music, Gene Seymour writes.
Amy Winehouse enchanted people with her sunny rhythm-and-blues music, Gene Seymour writes.
  • Amy Winehouse was found dead at the age of 27
  • Gene Seymour says whatever her personal demons, her art was special
  • He says her music was sunny and buoyant

Editor's note: Gene Seymour has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post.

(CNN) -- Sad? Unbearably so. Shocking? Unfortunately, no.

As this is being written, no one is saying for certain how or why Amy Winehouse died Saturday. British authorities used the word "unexplained" to characterize the circumstances. Those with even casual knowledge of who she was, what she did and how she lived have their suspicions. The multitudes who loved her music are devastated, but the guess here is that precious few of them are surprised. Their worst fears have been affirmed.

Winehouse's death, at 27, climaxes a near-decade of meteoric success and willful self-destruction. There was always a vexing contradiction between the sunny, buoyant rhythm-and-blues music that enchanted millions and the dismal, exasperating public spectacle she made of herself in tabloids and onstage.

How can someone so talented be so self destructive? Tune in to Dr. Drew Monday night at 9 ET.

At times, these two strains would intersect; most notably, on the platinum-selling single, "Rehab," with its catchy refrain: "They tried to make me go to rehab/ I said, no, no, no..." It became, for better and worse, a signature tune, crystallizing her approach-avoidance relationship with relieving her drug and alcohol addictions.

Amy Winehouse dead at 27
HLN's Dr. Drew on Amy Winehouse
Amy Winehouse found dead
She seemed so much in command of her art that it made one wonder even more why she seemed to have so little control of her life.
--Gene Seymour

It hasn't taken long for reporters to point out that Winehouse's death comes at the same age as those of Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones and Jimi Hendrix, all of whom remain iconic martyrs on the altar of self-destruction. Even those wishing to believe she could still escape such a fate tended to avert their gaze, especially in the last couple of years, from what seemed an inevitable collision.

But in the absence of hard facts (at least for the moment), there seems little point in dwelling or speculating on what killed Winehouse. And even less point in getting mired in maudlin or righteous recrimination. There are more than enough sob sisters lining up to bend our ears sideways with reprisals and cautionary lessons.

However the facts play out, I'd still rather talk about the music -- which, as with all the other young casualties cited earlier, will be all that really matters when assessing Amy Winehouse's long-term value to the world-at-large.

Her music was, as I noted earlier, sunny and buoyant. The songs could be mordantly funny and cheekily self-aware. "Rehab" was the most conspicuous example, but it was no less infectious or winning than the other tunes on 2006's "Back to Black" the multiple-Grammy-winning album that we must now -- alas -- acknowledge as her masterwork.

To listen to "Black," especially now, is to revel in a talent that seemed as enthralled with its own potential as its audience was. Winehouse's voice put forth a big sound, but it was also agile enough to evoke not only the African-American soul divas of the 1960s and 1970s, but also the jazz and cabaret singers of the 1940s and 1950s who grounded their ingenuity in bending or stretching notes rather than in multiplying or subdividing them. She seemed so much in command of her art that it made one wonder even more why she seemed to have so little control of her life.

Even that enrapturing voice couldn't overpower the sardonic, perhaps even ghoulish demons lurking within the lyrics. One thinks of the chorus to "You Know I'm No Good": "I cheated myself/ Like I knew I would..." There were on-line postings Saturday that made reference to this line from "Tears Dry on Their Own": "You walk away/and the sun goes down..."

No way anybody's going to stop the deconstructionists from having their ironic way with such lyrics -- and I'm kind of sorry I brought it up. Right now, I'd rather think about how she made me smile. Demons -- hers and everyone else's -- be damned.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gene Seymour.

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