Few regard Amy Winehouse as a pop star, but that’s what she was. Her unorthodox image – integral to her success – borrows more from David Bowie than Dinah Washington, and although she denied the influence of pop on her work, watching Madonna in the nineties must have fed the imagination of the young, British aesthete. Winehouse’s soul was not part of any broader movement; she fearlessly and singlehandedly appropriated the old genre and, with the success of the rich, confessional Back to Black (2006-7), made it pop. How telling that, after her death, Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Beyoncé were among the first to acknowledge her influence.
Winehouse’s music videos are faultless, and testify to her performativity, as do her unchanging makeup and beehive, now imprinted on the popular consciousness. Like Adele, the foremost British musician this century, listening to her voice one might mistake her as American. But Winehouse and Adele’s astonishing, smoky vocals and grounded, soul-baring lyrics are very much the product of their milieu. Their range of influences, American and British, gave them unique perspectives on soul and pop, and without the cultural anxiety that would accompany any American on such an endeavour they intuitively pillaged the best aspects of both. In their debut albums, Frank (2003-4) and 19 (2007-8), snatches of their British accents can still be heard. Intimidated by Adele’s newfound success, Winehouse reportedly suffered from an artistic crisis in 2012 while working on her third album; while Adele magnanimously attributes her success to Winehouse, it’s not hard to see how swiftly and opportunistically she filled the gap left by Winehouse’s descent into addiction. It’s easy to imagine Adele’s success as accidental, but due to its timeliness and emotive power 21 (2010-11) was bound to succeed. A general public exhausted by Lady Gaga’s histrionics welcomed the brief return to the age of nineties’ divas that Adele’s act offered. In spite of an English self-effacement, all the melodramatic sass of Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey can be glimpsed in her mannerisms on stage, yet her crippling flight- and performance-anxiety confirm a greater sensitivity. She’s more secure about her pop influences than Winehouse, naming the Spice Girls and Beyoncé as her idols, and despite all her gestures to soul her definitive songs can be safely categorised as pop. Image is as crucial to Adele as it was to Winehouse; her persona is twinkling, smouldering, affable and calculated to a tee; her gregariousness masks not only a serious artist, but her formidable focus and drive. (Look at the adeptness with which she prevented a backlash in 2017 by dedicating her second Album of the Year award to Beyoncé.) 25 (2015-16) was a fine, sumptuous repeat of its predecessor, but if she’s to maintain her primacy her next record must show adventure; I’d suggest exploring a slightly erotic sound.
Nobody foresaw the success of either of these women, but given their competitiveness and sheer talent it was inevitable. Adele must be regarded as the superior artist given just how poor Winehouse’s output and performances were after the release of Back to Black; it is a tragedy that Winehouse’s talent was so marred but – as with all great art – we must count ourselves lucky to have experienced what she gave us: the seeds of a nearly-perfect pop act.
A comparable though less convincing British diva is Florence Welch from Florence + the Machine. Known for her Grace Slick-esque wails, Welch attempts to integrate the art pop of Kate Bush and PJ Harvey with a more radio-friendly sound represented by Paul Epworth and even Calvin Harris. Full of idiosyncrasies and creative impulses, she is best viewed as a British Lady Gaga. Although more lyrically intense and stylistically measured, Welch, like Gaga, suffers from overreaching – there is no conscious vision that unifies her work; simply a beautiful wildness which pretends to say more than it does. Releasing her consistently good records in the shadow of Winehouse and then Adele, Welch, despite her faults, has not achieved the chart success her talent deserves. She came close to crafting a wonderfully popular, if overblown, sound, but did not embrace her pop sensibility enough to guarantee mainstream success. If a pop musician masquerades as something other than a pop star, the public will punish them for it. Let’s hope that Welch’s coronation as major pop star does happen, perhaps at the beginnings of a solo career; though I suspect that ship has sailed. My favourite of her songs are “What the Water Gave Me”, “Never Let Me Go” and “Breaking Down”, consecutive tracks on her second album Ceremonials (2011-12). Inspired by Virginia Woolf, these songs evoke that writer’s melancholy and sensitivity so much they’ve become inextricably linked with Woolf in my mind.
Ellie Goulding, a minor artist in comparison, showed potential with her debut era Lights (2009-11), with spangled, magical visuals which complement her soft and ethereal voice. “This Love (Will Be Your Downfall)” hints at what could have been. However, Goulding found American success early on with the song “Lights”, and further success slowly sapped her creativity, the dire Delirium (2015-16) culminating her degeneration into blandness. I believe Goulding’s art so faltered because her success was accidental. The demure girl from Herefordshire probably never envisaged herself as a global pop star, and thus couldn’t protect her artistic vision from venality. Her artistry gave way to a ruthless pivot to commercial success; whereas the most ambitious and important pop musicians always conceive the artistry and commercial success as one and the same.
It’s a shame that Charli XCX, one of our most energetic and promising pop stars, never quite reined in the punkishness which audiences in 2014 (when her first major album Sucker was released) found so off-putting; Neon Hitch, whose early songs and videos displayed originality and verve, failed to distinguish herself from Kesha. After featuring on successful singles, these two women could have catapulted themselves into the pop world, but did not seize the opportunity with enough tenacity. Sometimes the stars just don’t align; there was little chance Natalia Kills, a creative and motivated musician who debuted in 2010, would find any success in the shadow of Lady Gaga. Success has always been an uphill battle for non-American pop stars: they must offer something distinguishable from the American superstars while still pivoting to the world’s biggest music market. Jessie J, whose fun debut era Who You Are (2010-12) is let down by daft lyrics, struggled with an increasingly over-Americanised identity until she both alienated her British audience and became expendable in the United States. M.I.A., always a greater visionary than the grandiose Kanye West, didn’t prioritise chart success, not realising that superstardom opens up doors artistically – arena tours and award show performances enhance any pop act.
Lily Allen’s vaunted pop experiment mostly fails because even her most joyful melodies are dragged down by the misery of her lyrics. Allen does not have the astringency for social commentary, and her attempts at it only reveal a rather underdeveloped world view. She is at her best at her most personal: “Chinese” is a novel and earnest piece in which the poppy melody is trusted to lift up and reveal the joy that lurks beneath the seemingly mundane act of ordering a takeaway. Perhaps It’s Not Me, It’s You (2008-9) can serve as a blueprint for future pop stars with the sharpness and thoughtfulness required for such a project to work. But only a brave person would utter the names of these marginal musicians in the same breath as those two great women who still tower over the industry. Amy Winehouse and Adele changed the pop world.