In January 2007, I was at Amy Winehouse's debut live performance in America, hosted at Joe's Pub in New York. It had been a few months since she'd released "Back to Black" in the U.K., and the label was starting in on a formal introduction to the Mercury Prize-nominated singer here in the 'States.
She performed on an elevated stage over dinner tables, her tiny dress proving all the more scandalous. She took the stage with the Dap-Kings, each like props or toys around which she would weave, her knees like a foal's capping over her towering heels. Her body was thin, but that voice rattled out of it with a shambling boom. One hand held the mic as the other held a wine, almost perpetually, as if one were dropped she'd keel over like a tippled scale. When she wasn't holding a glass, she'd fuss with her short hemline, smooth her hand over her stomach or cup her breasts and bodice.
I thought she sounded magnificent. I remember the title track and how she bowed down over the chorus, "I died a hundred times," emphasis on the "hundred," and found it delicious that even after an early evening show, this raw-nerved rambler would be dragging her North London-drawled banter and throwback tunes into a second set, later after ours was done. I didn't know how she'd get there, but she did. ("Back to Black" turned out to be my No. 2 favorite record that year. She released two albums total.)
About a month after that show, Britney Spears was in the news because she shaved her head. It was in the middle of what seemed like an inevitable and heartbreaking descent for the pop star, a breaking point that wasn't altogether expected but also unsurprising. She had divorced only a couple months before, and bounded in and out of rehab treatment centers after. Spears was many, many moons into her fame. She was acting out, or acting up in rebellion, or shutting in, a coping.