If you liked Amy Winehouse, the misunderstood melancholic visionary who died too young under the crushing burden of her own success, then I won’t occupy your time with another selective biography-turned-eulogy about how she saved pop-ish jazz-ish or whatever.
If you hated Amy Winehouse, the rehabbed alcoholic and self-destructive whose only success was writing about going to rehab before going back to rehab, well that’s fine too. I just want to talk about “Valerie.”
Another dude where there are not at all entrenched or divergent opinions joined the fray: copycat fraud / retro cratedigger Mark Ronson, who was tapped by Winehouse for a production role. And why not? He put together a spectacular track that’s decisively modern but is still rooted in whatever sensibilities Winehouse is already accustomed to. He tossed the sleepy string arrangements that seemed to always back her up, ditched the Garden State-era-actually-I-think-is-this-the-closing-credits-in-Garden State aura from the appropriately British “The Zutons,” heaped on the brass, and heaped on Winehouse. There was no conceivable way this project could fail. Yet…
I’m not a voice critic, but I recognize that the narrowest things separate the mesmerizing vocal performances from the mundane. It’s the absolute eradication of the tiniest, most persistent nagging doubt, for one. We all have it, just listen to yourself on voicemail then pick up the phone and sound exactly the same. Now that I’ve mentioned it: good luck. The other is the absolute commitment to whatever you’re singing. Together it’s why “Drunk In Love” Beyonce makes “Irreplaceable” Beyonce look like Ariana Grande.
I fucking hate “Valerie,” precisely because it is good. It is not among the best pop songs ever recorded, which it had every right to be if Mark Ronson wasn’t so busy sniffing his own farts and Winehouse wasn’t getting drunk or high or whatever-the-fuck she was doing at the time. The two of them took an unsinkable project and found the iceberg. Winehouse copped out by playing either the bored lesbian or one of four high school girlfriends posing in front of a mirror making a pouty face and half-sucking a lollipop, meanwhile, Ronson was apparently content to do anything but his God damn job. He didn’t have to go all Phil Spector and pull a gun on her, just tell her to sing the song as if she expected any other answer than “well I just ordered a pizza.”
Here’s the correct interpretation and rendition of “Valerie”: it’s the plot of fucking Carol, especially since the song is trying to pretend it’s in the 60’s anyways. “Stop making a fool out of me” should be the most flammable introspection in the last 25 years instead of a coy request. Less winking face, more waterfall tears. Hell, use the damn knife emoji, who cares if it isn’t clear who it’s directed at. The female lead already knows why Valerie can’t come over, and it’s not because she’s doing her damn nails. People still revere “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman after 30 years because she sells it; “Valerie” will be lucky to still get play in neo-neo-swing revival shows once the same time passes.
It’s infuriating because Winehouse knew that “Valerie” was the song she was born to sing yet she barely got the chance. She had the chops to pull it off with a voice that’s a trembling mix of humanist fragility and the banshee wail of Wanda Jackson. But she never commits to it, just flirts with it in bits and pieces. So instead of ending up with a long-list “best song of all time” candidate, we end up with “Mark Ronson’s other song” and “Amy Winehouse’s legacy to Amy Winehouse fans.” There’s no second takes now, no live cuts to give it another shot. Death can be bullshit, and it’s why I fucking hate “Valerie:” precisely because it is good.
notsomethingstructural (aka @nss_ds) is an amateur listicle purveyor and the author of “The 25 Best Hip Hop Albums of All Time”. He co-authored the record-setting #WorstSongBracket and is terrible at Twitter.