Like just about everyone else, I'd heard of Amy Winehouse before I heard her music.
By now, we all know her talking points. She just won five Grammys with her great pipes, sharp-tongued lyrics and retro sound, but run-ins with drugs and the law kept her from picking up her awards in person.
Instead, she performed her big hit, "Rehab," via satellite, and the irony was lost on no one.
"They tried to make me go to rehab, but I said no, no, no," Winehouse sang dutifully, though she'd already changed her tune. She's been in treatment for the past month.
Her troubled personal life gives a stamp of authenticity to her lyrics. There's no denying her talent, but in this era of celebrity mug shots and guerrilla videos, is a strong voice enough to hold our attention?
Of course, the train-wreck factor only enhances her appeal. Winehouse's storyline — the bad girl pining for her bad-boy husband — perpetuates one of the most enduring clichés of our time: sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.
With her messy beehive hairdo and heavy mascara, she embodies sex; for her appearance on the Grammys, she had to use eyeliner on her arm to draw clothes on her naked-lady tattoo.
Her fondness for drugs is spelled out in her brushes with the law, including a charge for cannabis possession in October and a video purporting to show her smoking crack in January.
But where's the rock 'n' roll? Her first album, "Frank"– which came out in England in 2003 and finally came to the United States in November — has more to do with jazz, soul, and rhythm and blues. "Back to Black," which followed in late 2006 and blew up last year, updates girl groups and Motown. If you don't pay attention to the lyrics, she sounds so well-behaved.
Winehouse's voice is more weathered than your average 24-year-old's, but her immaturity narrows her perspective. Even the greatest love causes tunnel vision, and the love she sings about is toxic.
She's got a couple of variations: She loves her man but can't stop cheating on him ("You Know I'm No Good"), she wants someone else's man ("Just Friends"), she stands by the man who treats her mean ("Some Unholy War").
It's not that she doesn't know any better; her lyrics are nothing if not self-aware. Take "Tears Dry on Their Own," which mines "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" for its memorable melody and co-dependent spirit.
"I don't understand," she wonders in the song. "Why do I stress the man when there's so many better things at hand?"
She sees her pattern of unhealthy relationships, but she's powerless to break the cycle: "Even if I stop wanting you … I'll be some next man's other woman soon."
Just in time, she gives herself a pep talk, and 10 out of 10 advice columnists would validate her feelings with a "You go, girl!"
"I shouldn't play myself again," she tells herself. "I should just be my own best friend, not f— myself in the head with stupid men."
Lonely Is Her Number
By the song's end, she's got some of her dignity back. She may be alone, her cheeks streaked with mascara, but she's stronger going out than she was coming in. And then Winehouse dives right back into the pain with the next song, "Wake Up Alone." Another lonely day, another lonely song.
So Winehouse is adept at pairing a classic sound with current sentiments, but does she have staying power? Don't ask me. Who knows why some self-destructive artists succumb to their demons while so many others hang on? Maybe finally saying yes, yes, yes to rehab will do the trick, or maybe she'll have to try again and again. Or maybe she'll be in limbo soon enough, singing polite trifles about her big house and beautiful kids.
Yet it may already be too late to rehabilitate her image. Listeners love to identify with beautiful losers, but it's hard to say how loyal they'd be if Winehouse were to clean up her act.
Everyone wants a piece of you when you're a wounded little girl, but that early role limits your options. A victim has three choices: stay a victim, become a survivor, or victimize someone else.
If you don't die prematurely — and even Winehouse's parents seem to be genuinely worried about that possibility — you get old. And troubled old women don't make the gossip columns; by the time they're mature enough to get over their bad habits and stupid men, listeners have moved on, too.
Just look at Marianne Faithfull. London-born and Jewish, like Winehouse, she earned every crack in her voice before she turned 30. Forty years after she became better known for her drug abuse and brushes with the law as she was for her music, Faithfull continues to release dark and riveting songs.
But though her music's well-received by critics and loyal listeners, she doesn't command the attention she once did. And whatever stars may say about the paparazzi when they first get burned by fame, some part of them must miss the spotlight's warmth once it's gone.
It's still too early to say which path Winehouse will pick. But with just two albums under her beehive — two catchy, sassy albums of hand-me-down arrangements and pick-me-up pleas — she's still got a lot to prove.
I hope she's up to the task.