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Talent keeps Winehouse on top despite drama

Even before the release of her heralded “Back to Black” album last year, Amy Winehouse’s reputation as a tortured soul threatened to overshadow her music.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Even before the release of her heralded “Back to Black” album last year, Amy Winehouse’s reputation as a tortured soul threatened to overshadow her music.

Her subsequent litany of debacles, culminating in the visa denial that will keep her from attending Sunday night’s Grammy Awards, only added to the notion that Winehouse was another Janis Joplin in the making. Yet throughout it all, Winehouse’s commercial and critical success has not suffered.

With the possible exception of R. Kelly, who’s notched hit after hit despite looming child pornography charges, Winehouse is the best example of how good music can sustain a troubled artist’s career. Drug and sex scandals may have doomed careers decades ago (a la Jerry Lee Lewis), but today even the most salacious charges don’t spell doom for talented artists.

“Music trumps everything else, and we want to be moved by music,” said industry executive Jody Gerson. “We are not so judgmental about the person if we love the music.”

Winehouse was admitted to rehab on Jan. 24, soon after a video hit the Internet of her puffing on a crack pipe. On Thursday, the U.S. Embassy denied Winehouse a visa to perform at the Grammys, despite her leading six nominations. She will perform via satellite, an executive close to the Grammys told The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity.

Her now-ironic hit “Rehab” (“no no no,” the chorus said), rose on the charts even as reports of her drug use swirled. But despite the almost daily chronicles of her troubles, Winehouse’s album stands at a respectable No. 40 on Billboard’s album chart. Heralded as one of the best albums of 2007, the retro disc depicts her troubles with romance and alcohol through a mix of humor and pathos plus deft lyrics backed by soulful grooves.

The singer-songwriter Akon, who is up for four Grammys, told The Associated Press that tabloid troubles can actually help an artist in the long run.

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“The more they go through, the more people can connect with them, because they start to realize that they aren’t perfect — ’They’re just like me,”’ so it really helps you sometimes,” said Akon, who maintained his popularity despite public relations crises of his own last year, including charges he threw a fan off a stage during a concert.

“Especially with Amy there’s a thousand teenage kids going through what she’s gong through right now, so they really can literally identify with her,” Akon said. “Music hits you in the soul.”

‘Let a music do the talking’Winehouse, 24, goes into the Grammy ceremony with nominations in the key categories of record, song, album of the year and best new artist. The CD has sold an impressive 1.5 million copies in the United States alone, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

“We try and let a music do the talking,” said Maurice Bernstein, the co-founder and CEO of Giant Step, which handled early marketing for the “Back to Black” U.S. release. “Although there’s been all this press going on, people are still buying her album, and I don’t think they are buying it because of the negative press — they’re buying it because they like the music.”

Powerful music also affords a glimpse into the personalities of musicians who often create hidden from public view — unlike actors, for example, who need to hide who they really are in order be effective on screen.

Though Michael Jackson was certainly tarnished, even he notched a No. 1 single and multiplatinum album after he was first accused of child molestation, in 1994 (he hasn’t released an album since his 2005 acquittal of child molestation charges).

The once white-hot Britney Spears — dubbed “An American Tragedy” this week by Rolling Stone magazine — also had a strong, if not spectacular debut of her latest album, “Blackout,” which sold almost 390,000 copies and had a No. 2 showing when it was released last fall. The first single, “Gimme More,” was also a top ten hit. Since then, however, the album has plummeted despite strong reviews. But that may lie more in Spears’ failure to promote the record, and her disastrous performance on MTV’s Video Music Awards a few weeks before the album’s release.

“Her record sales and her career would have taken such a different turn if that performance would have been her big comeback,” says Gerson, the co-president of Sony/ATV Music Publishing. “We like a comeback more than we like the disaster part.”

Whether Winehouse retains her popularity when she releases her second U.S. album depends on the strength of the new music, says Bernstein.

“She’s a great musician and it’s a great record,” he said. “The public has stayed loyal to this record because I think they were already into this record before a lot of the stuff hit the fan.”

Should that great music disappear, Winehouse’s career may evaporate as well.

“If she didn’t make a record that people loved,” Gerson said, “no one would care about her.”