Mouth to Mouth: Amy Winehouse and Appropriation

Installation view of You Know I'm No Good.
Photo by Johnna Arnold.
Artist Jennie Ottinger recently gave a short gallery chat on her installation Mouth to Mouth: Pieces from an Animation about Cultural Appropriation—featured in The Contemporary Jewish Museum's current exhibition You Know I'm No Good. Responding to Amy Winehouse's legacy and music, Ottinger's multi-faceted installation addresses the icon's cultural appropriation of the legacy of female musicians, specifically African American singers. 

Jennie Ottinger (JO): As I got the topic, I really didn’t know much about Amy Winehouse—I had been aware of the hits and her personal story, but I didn’t really listen to her music. So I just started Googling, and I came across an article by Daphne A. Brooksan African American Studies professor at Yaleabout Amy Winehouse and cultural appropriation. It was in The Nation, you can find it online, it’s really great. I emailed her, and as we were talking back and forth about it, she sent me the academic version of the article. So I started thinking about it from that standpoint. 

I made these pieces originally for video, and then we decided that this would be more appropriate for the show. So I then had the challenge to try to say the same thing without the benefit of a narrative. I did that in a few different ways. One is that I used a lot of mouths because I was thinking about how it’s all about voiceAmy’s voiceand the black female vocalists that she appropriated from. This is a topic that is just blowing up, especially right now with Iggy Azalea and there have been some public fights among performers. I read articles about it and was interested in the difference between influence and appropriationwhere that line is and what it means? Does it mean you can’t like somebody who appropriates from another culture? I think it’s undeniable when somebody is appropriating but I don’t know what that means for us as listeners and consumers. So I wanted to open it up, I wanted this piece to be a way for us to talk about it. 

Installation view of You Know I'm No Good.
Photo by Johnna Arnold.
So, I used mouths a lot, putting the black women’s mouths in place of Amy Winehouse’s mouth. And some museum-goers have taken it upon themselves to change that around a few times. (Laughs)

The other way I did that was through scale. Like in this area here, Amy looms much larger over the women. These little ones I made specifically for the installation to create more of a distance between her large body and these smaller women.

Another way I did it was with the sound piece, which is off for the talk; but afterwards, I encourage you to stand underneath it and listen. It’s Amy Winehouse singing You Know I’m No Good with tracks of the applause from live versions of Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Nina Simone. So the clapping and the little bit of those women singing will be coming over Amy Winehouse—it kind of goes in and out. That, and the feet, which is kind of the obvious visual pun—I put her feet above them, you know, she’s climbing on them to get to her success.
Installation view of You Know I'm No Good.
Photo by Johnna Arnold.
And it’s been interesting . . . like I said, this aspect of Amy Winehouse didn’t occur to me before doing this piece. As I talk to people about it, it does create a conflict that people just want to like her and just want to listen to her, and not feel guilty about it, or not to feel that they’re being unfair to an entire race. And that really interests me, that conflict. And where is that line and how do people feel about it? And so I researched a bunch of other people too, and when it’s okay—it’s really specific. When a white person is taking from a black person, that’s definitely problematic—it’s a dominant group taking another group’s history and development and just taking the superficial aspects of it and using it for herself in her own work. But there are people like Justin Timberlake, who does pretty much the same thing, or Eminem, but it seems to get a little bit of a pass because of the way they talk about it publicly. Like I think Eminem said he wouldn’t be as famous if he were a black man, instead of a white man; or Dusty Springfield, who worked with a lot of African American producers and musicians as well. That’s something I’ve been really thinking about.

My next body of work is about Bring It On, actually. Has anybody seen that masterpiece cheerleading movie from 1999? (laughs) So it’s interesting because this piece has completely changed my work. So this has been a really important experience and changed—not only my work—but it’s actually changed the way that I listen to music. I’ve learned so much about music, but I can’t remember anything anyway so it’s gone. But it’s changed the way I look at media and culture. 

So for those of you who don’t know, Bring It On is about two cheerleading teams—a white team and a black team from East Compton. And the white team has been winning all these national championships, but they discover that their former captain had been copying the cheers and choreography from the East Compon High Group. And I won’t spoil it, but it’s amazing! (Laughs) But it’s amazing, it has a twist ending (not really).

Installation view of You Know I'm No Good. Photo by Johnna Arnold.

Audience 1 (A1): Could you tell us about the representation of specific groups?

JO: In Daphne [A.] Brooks’ article, she talks about the specific people that she [Amy] drew upon. It starts with Mimi Smith, whose record is actually the first African American blues recording from the 1920s. And she has a kind of gravelly voice, really doesn’t enunciate her words, that's something that's really similar to Amy Winehouse.

That’s Billie Holiday . . . here's The Supremes. I get the Chantels and the Shirelles confused, but those are them. The Supremes again. The Ronettes. Nina Simon. I didn’t really listen to this music before, but it’s so good! I only can, from editing the video and this, I know 30 seconds of every song really really well. (laughs).

Daphne [A.] Brooks
—who's speaking at Berkeley soon, check their website, it’s going to be goodshe talks about the specific things that she [Amy Winehouse] chose and how she made the music sound so amazing to our ears—because she’s taking the best parts of the musical history, and it has nostalgia and has the beat—it’s like candy to our ears. It’s familiar but the way it’s put together in this postmodern way is interesting enough that it just keep us wanting to hear more. Nostalgia is huge. So she [Amy Winehouse] has the benefit of drawing upon history by these women. And a lot of them, especially Nina Simone, were pretty political about the rights of African American women and she’s taking that and she has the benefit of being a white girl, and not really having to deal with any of the issues that these women had to face.

Audience 2 
(A2):  I think—sorry to interruptI think it’s slightly unfair considering that Amy Winehouse is Jewish. I mean her family has had to go through hardships, I’m sure. And I think it’s interesting, the song choice of You Know I’m No Good; to me a lot of the melody in that song sounds very Jewish. Not to say she didn’t heavily appropriate or was heavily influenced by African American music or black music in general. But I think it’s very challenging in general in music to not take influence from not just African American music but all kinds of music now, especially being able to hear music from all parts of the world nowadays.

JO: So you feel like . . . I just want to make sure I have your opinion.

A2: I’m saying that I think this is taking a very aggressive view on an artist's appropriation to the point that it’s straight copying and stealing instead of that it’s more influential.

JO: But like I said, that line is very fine. And there’s the way you talk about it, and she made some big mistakes about that I think made it a lot worse for her.

Audience 3 (A3): Like what?

JO: She was recorded singing that racist song—I won’t sing it but that made a lot of people angry . . . when she’s being influenced by this culture and then to speak about it with racial slurs. It didn’t go over well. And there’s a history of this, it’s not just her. The reason I did hers is because it’s the show—but there’s a crazy history of it. Like Elvis, exactly, who was like, “This is great, let’s get a white guy to record it.”

Audience 4 (A4): The same thing could be said about The Rolling Stones, the Beatles, if you really go and study—

JO: Right, well that's exactly the problem. It's just been happening and happening.

A4: —all musicians are influenced by the musicians who came before them. 

A2: But, I don't know if it's a problem.

JO: Well if you’re white, if you’re the Rolling Stones, it’s not a problem. If you’re James Brown, it’s a problem. This music is based on African American history, it’s based on things they were doing as slaves, it goes back so far. And then when white musicians go and take that thing without that history or even knowing what they’re copying . . . Like I said, I love the Beatles, I love the Rolling Stones, but I think it needs to be acknowledged and I think it needs to be talked about.

I actually feel like Amy Winehouse—what I’ve read about it and what I’ve learned about her—would love this. From what people say, she loved an argument; so I think that she would love to open this up and to have this conversation. And, there's no denying that her music is great.


You Know I'm No Good gallery chats are short talks in the gallery by artists and scholars about the work and stories in the exhibition. Join us for our next talk in the series with Jason Jägel on Oct 30.
About the Speaker

Image Credit: Jennie Ottinger;
photo by Valerie Imus.
Jennie Ottinger’s paintings blur the line between childhood memory and fantasy, power and vulnerability, attraction and repulsion. Throughout her practice, she challenges the constructed rules of everyday social constructions—tennis, cheerleading, football, and most recently, the circus. Learn more.


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