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Winehouse Blazes Trail for U.K. Female Singers

The British singer Amy Winehouse has been nominated in a number of categories for this year's Grammy Awards, including album of the year, but she won't attend the ceremony in Los Angeles on Sunday. Winehouse's request for a visa has been turned down by the U.S. Embassy.

The 24-year-old singer is currently being treated in a London rehabilitation clinic for her addiction to alcohol and drugs. Few were surprised when she checked in last month, despite her insistence that she wouldn't go, in her single "Rehab."

The tune has become the theme song for the life of the skinny, tattooed North Londoner with the black beehive hair. Last month, she was photographed taking hard drugs and wandering dazed through the streets in her underwear — the brilliance of her music matched only by the tragedy of her life.

Despite — or perhaps because of — all that, her second album, Back to Black, sold 1.7 million copies in Britain alone last year. Neil McCormick, music critic for the Daily Telegraph newspaper, says that not only is Winehouse a musical genius, but she's changed the landscape of British music and paved the way for a whole new generation of young female singers.

"Amy's a really great talent," he says. "She's reached back into the roots of the music that she loves and created a very retro album. Because of that, what's happened is you've seen a shift in the priorities of the record industry. She's really put big girl singing back on the map. Adele wouldn't be being called, you know, the star of 2008 if it hadn't been for Amy putting that on the map."

Adele is 19-year-old Adele Adkins, all teenage attitude and London vowels, who is being hailed as "the new Amy Winehouse." Her album, 19, is No. 1 in the British charts. Her single, "Chasing Pavements," is No. 2.

Like many of the new female singer-songwriters, Adele has become famous thanks to the Internet. She posts her songs online, plays her own guitar and sings about her tortured love life.

McCormick says the new generation of singers is a reflection of a new kind of "Girl Power" in Britain.

"In the '90s, we got into this whole 'lad' thing where men were going to be men again," he says, "...but the girls got into that as well, and you sort of had the 'ladette.' The younger girls coming through have sort of emerged out of that kind of fearless, mouthy, post-Oasis, post-lad culture."

But the second pretender to Winehouse's throne is not quite from that same mold. She's all blonde '60s hairstyle, dimpled cheeks and a voice like she was born in Muscle Shoals, Ala., not Nefyn, North Wales. She's also called Amy, but she's known by just her last name, Duffy, and her big chart hit is "Mercy."

As well as more established acts like KT Tunstall, Lily Allen and Katie Melua, there are other new names coming through, like Laura Marling and Kate Nash, who went from 0 to 60 in a couple of weeks last year simply by posting some songs on MySpace.

Many of the new stars have attended the British Record Industry Trust, or BRIT, School in South London. But one that hasn't — flying the flag for Scotland — is yet another Amy, 20-year-old Amy MacDonald, with her song "This Is the Life."

What's perhaps most noticeable about the new young women singers is the crossover in styles and influences: blues, jazz, soul, folk, even Celtic rhythms.

Author and broadcaster Paul Gambaccini, who has spent 30 years covering the British music scene, says this is partly because of the diversity in what gets played on the radio in Britain, compared with often centrally programmed stations in the United States.

"In the States, it has been possible, with narrow casting and formatization, to only hear the kind of music you know you like," he says. "The result of this is that in American music, the tendency has been for white music to get whiter, and African-American music to get more ghetto. The point is that in Britain, where there is no such formatization of music, you can have an Amy Winehouse singing 'Back to Black' and nobody thinks you shouldn't be doing this."

McCormick agrees, and says, despite her problems, and despite all the new competition, Winehouse is still in a league of her own.

"'Back to Black,' when I heard that itself, I was just absolutely knocked out, you know, at her own self-laceration, and then the way the music just takes off at the end is just fantastic," he says.

Winehouse's fans are hoping she can pull herself back from the edge. The paradox is that, perhaps like other great singers before her, it is living life on the edge that makes her music so good.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rob Gifford
Rob Gifford is the NPR foreign correspondent based in Shanghai.