Do you need to be an expert on Roger Moore and Tanqueray before you can sing You Know I’m no Good? Do you need to know that Stella isn’t a girl? That chips and pitta look like this? Do you need an Amy Winehouse phrasebook? No. Like all the best songs, You Know I’m No Good’s meaning lives in the music of each word. Not in the dictionary.
Don’t waste time worrying about every last detail of You Know I’m No Good’s enigmatic lyrics. Few native English speakers or even native Londoners ‘get’ every bit of slang or catch every single word in Amy’s song. As time passes, words that were current in North London’s early 21st century street slang lose or change their meaning.
You don’t need to know, and we’ll never know, whether Amy mentions Jamaica and Spain because this was in the news when she wrote You Know I’m No Good, because she had a friend who sold Clarks shoes or just because she’d walked past a tempting display in the window of a travel agency that morning. She wasn’t rich or famous when she wrote You Know I’m No Good. Jamaica and Spain were faraway dreams or special memories to her.
Amy’s songwriting isn’t diary-keeping. Yes, she uses her life to inform her lyrics, but she chooses her words and bends details to serve her music. We can only guess how she built up her personal word-hoard. None of that matters.
What matters about Jamaica and Spain, when you sing You Know I’m No Good, is that you give the ai diphthong at the centre of each word the warm, slow space it needs, to glow. It’s the repetition of that round, cosy ai that sets up, and intensifies, the pathos of the false sense of security, the flash of cosy domestic intimacy of the again in We’re like how we were again. We hear that ai sound, and it echoes the warm, happy days of Jamaica and Spain. We’re with Amy, in hope and happy memories, but we know, and she knows; it won’t last.
You need to keep warmth and festivity clear and present in your mind as you sing the words Jamaica and Spain in Amy’s song. She didn’t choose those countries for their ai alone. Sweet reunion, Kuwait and Ukraine has all the right diphthongs, but all the wrong associations. Jamaica and Spain say sunshine and relaxation, to Amy and to her audience, especially her British audience. You need to carry that feeling in your voice. Subtly, but truly.
The mystique of Amy’s language, to a native English speaker, is part of the jazz atmosphere of the song. Amy’s choice of words in You Know I’m No Good paints a clear sound picture of: London, local nightlife (a downstairs bar isn’t aimed at tourists), a complicated love-life and young people living alone without much money (chips and pitta is classic night-time, filling, cheap, comfort food. The kind of thing your mum would worry about you eating too often).
Crying on the kitchen floor is a vivid image of domestic desperation and youth. Old people don’t tend to sink to the floor to cry, unless they’re sure somebody’s there to help them get back up again. Wealthy English people don’t argue to emotional collapse in the kitchen, unless they’re at a party or very, very drunk.
It’s interesting, but not essential to know that:
“the bleak line “I cried for you on the kitchen floor” from You Know I’m No Good was inspired by one of many splits with her then boyfriend Blake Fielder-Civil. A 23-year-old Winehouse told the journalist John Kelly, who interviewed her at Other Voices, that she used to lie on her kitchen floor with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s whenever she and Fielder-Civil broke up, playing the Shangri-Las’ I Can Never Go Home Anymore on repeat: “I would pass out, wake up and do it again.” The Guardian
The lyrics themselves outlive and outshine the personal details of Amy’s life. You don’t need to read her biography, or listen to the Shangri-Las to feel the emotional power of I cried for you on the kitchen floor. It’s the personal made universal. There’s an exquisite juxtaposition of domestic and desperate in Amy’s line.
No other room in the house does the job as perfectly as kitchen. I cried for you on the bathroom floor has all the right syllables, but paints the wrong emotional picture – cold tiles, locked doors and small spaces (in a young person’s shared-flat London bathroom). Nothing that nourishes is created in a bathroom.
I cried for you on the bedroom floor? Either the person being cried about is in the bed or the crying is a lonely, compulsive habit. It’s a different story. We imagine a bedroom floor as cosy and carpeted. A place of refuge.
If Amy had used bedroom or bathroom for the line, she would have lost the immediacy of kitchen. Her audience would have wasted time trying to understand her meaning, to build a picture for themselves. Milliseconds of time, yes, but Amy’s songs move on quickly. Images have to be immediate. Words have to do their work in a flash.
Kitchens have cold floors (not as cold as a bathroom, but not comfy either). Kitchens don’t have a door that locks, they’re the heart of a house, open to all, a casual place of nurturing and domesticity, the focus of house parties. We all carry a cosy, emotional hinterland of kitchen in our minds and memories. Crying and kitchen floor isn’t a combination we expect. But we imagine it immediately, exactly.
If English isn’t your first language: you don’t need to understand the meaning of every single word in You Know I’m No Good, but you need to understand the syntax, if you want to sing the song in public. For the sake of your audience – and out of respect for Amy Winehouse.
You need to know what each word’s doing in each line. Then you’ll be able to use the right stress and intonation to guide your audience through the story of the song.
Without syntax, when you sing Hand me your Stella and fly, you might be thinking of this:
Or, if you know that Amy’s thinking of fly as a verb here, you might think she means this:
when she’s actually thinking of this:
Amy needs fly to rhyme closely with guy, so she gives the y a lot of room. Gandalf/Ian McKellen puts his emphasis on the fl. He doesn’t need fly to rhyme with anything, he just wants Frodo etc. to leave quickly. All his attention is focused on pumping urgency into the word, and into his friends. Amy’s fly is subtly different. It’s not as fast as Gandalf’s. You need to have that in your mind when you sing it.
Hand me your Stella and fly is an observation, not a command. Amy sounds resigned to her man’s jealousy and not she’s not 100% disappointed to see him in the street tear[ing] men down for her sake.
That’s the difference that syntax makes – fly as a verb, not fly as a 6-legged noun. Thinking about the rhymes and repetition of the song leads you to fly as the right verb. If you sing Amy’s fly with all the weight of Gandalf on the fl, you’ll sound wrong and you’ll wrong-foot the music. Music and melody are king and queen when you sing.
Syntax helps with slang words too. It doesn’t matter if your audience has never heard the word likkle before. Show them, through your intonation, that likkle‘s an adjective, not a verb. Link it clearly to the noun it’s describing: carpet burn. Clearly, but smoothly.
The sound of likkle is close enough to little. Your audience will guess what likkle means, if you’re clear about what kind of word it is. Most native English speakers would only use the word likkle if they were talking to a baby or if it was part of their family language.
Listen to Christopher Lee bringing Jabberwocky to life. He knows exactly where to put the stress in each line to make it sound like perfect English, even though most of it is gobbledeygook:
Carroll carefully built a scaffolding of ‘ordinary’ English so the nonsense words slot into perfect grammatical place. We feel safe to invent a meaning for them. Meaning shines through word order in English.
When you see a word’s position in relation to its neighbours in the text here, it’s safe to guess that slithy is an adjective, toves is a (plural) noun and galumph is a verb. Onomatopoeia makes each word easy to visualise.
So the sentences ‘work’ and they make sense, even though a lot of the words are made-up. The rhyme helps to guess the pronunciation, but leaves you enough room to play. Slang from foreign languages works in the same way. You don’t need to know the exact meaning to ‘feel’ the meaning, if the sound is right.
Just for fun, here are the Muppets performing Jabberwocky and here’s Tom Waits’ version. You’ll notice that they don’t agree with Christopher Lee on the pronunciation of gyre or mome raths. That doesn’t matter. They’re all ‘cover versions‘ of what was in Lewis Carroll’s mind as he wrote.
They all signpost the same correct English syntax through their intonation, so each version makes sense as perfectly understandable English, in its own surreal way. How does Jabberwocky help when you come to sing You Know I’m no Good (or any other song with enigmatic or unexpected lyrics)? Well, as long as you get syntax straight when you sing, everything else will fall into place, just as Jabberwocky did for Christopher Lee.
If you don’t know what a word means, in one of Amy’s songs or in any English song, either because it’s slang, unusual or outside your own knowledge of English, you:
- need to work out what kind of word it is: noun, verb, adjective, adverb, preposition etc. Remember fly and fly.
- You need to work out its function and its importance to the meaning of the line.
- You need to work out whether it needs to be stressed or not.
- You need to pronounce it with a recognisably English pronunciation.
- Remember: all you need to know and to communicate to your audience is what kind of word you’re singing. They’ll fill in their own meaning.
It sounds like English homework, but it will stop you losing your way when you’re singing. If you get lost, your audience will get lost too.
DON’T: pass over or mumble a word if you’re not sure about it. Mumbling distracts your audience, unbalances the music and sounds terrible. Take the time to slot the unknown word into its proper place in the syntax. You don’t need to understand every last detail about the word itself, but you need to understand its purpose.
Remember: with written English you can see the relationship of words on the page, so you can guess the meaning. English usually follows the pattern: Subject, Object, Verb, but think of all the likkle words that diffract or disturb the pattern: the prepositions, adverbs and conjunctions. And music always leads English to dance a little outside the grammar cage.
When you sing, your audience doesn’t have the written words to guide them, unless you project the lyrics onto a screen behind you, karaoke-style. You’re their only light, guiding them towards the important words and sounds that hold the meaning of the song.
Your audience needs you to light the way. English, like any language, becomes a meaningless mush of sounds if you don’t know where one word ends and the next begins. Your listeners will drown in a mess of random syllables if you don’t throw them a lifeline of syntax.
If you don’t clarify the syntax, you might as well just hum or sing la, la, la, la. In fact, that might be kinder for your audience.
If you want to help your audience find their way through You Know I’m No Good:
- You need to know that rolled up sleeves, sniffed me out and tear men down involve phrasal verbs. You must link the three words in each phrase when you sing, otherwise the phrasal verb’s meaning is lost. Don’t leave any member of each triplet drifting apart from its siblings. They need each other, if they’re going to make sense.
- The idiomatic question: “who truly stuck the knife in first?” sounds stronger if you link stuck and in when you sing.
- Remember who does something wrong first is important when you’re angry. Amy sings first with an unusually long vowel sound, to make sure that you notice it.
- You need to know that fella and guy mean the same thing, so that you use the right emotional force in the repetition.
- You need to know that Roger Moore is a whole name, not Roger + more. You need to know that Roger Moore played James Bond.
Tanqueray, by the way, is an expensive, high-class gin. The word has an exotic 19th century aura in English. Amy will have chosen it partly for that reason and partly because it’s a three-syllable word with a lovely mouthfeel.
Don’t, don’t fade away in the final syllable of Tanqueray. Sing the word right to the very end. Clearly. It fits the music like a glove. Amy curls and twists that last ay. She chose the word Tanqueray for its internal music, as well as its meaning.
Not all words have been chosen for their meaning. Some have been chosen for their rhyme: Amy sings hurt at the end of the first line, but lots of people think she’s saying heard because of her habit of softening her t. Hurt doesn’t matter. The word’s a filler; it frames the line and its real purpose is to rhyme with t-shirt. Hurt, heard; they both do the job.
One last thing about Amy Winehouse – she’s a mistress of ghost consonants. Be careful when you copy her. Because of her classic jazz singing style, it’s hard to hear every d, b or t at the end of words. Don’t make the mistake of thinking they’re not there or not necessary. They are. They’re hard to hear, but they’re essential.
If you don’t mark the ends of your words, English becomes incomprehensible, and annoying for your listeners.
Amy marks the ends of her words by moving her mouth into shape to finish the word neatly, even if she doesn’t always sing the sound itself out loud. The d, b and t are there. You can see them, but you can’t always hear them. Watch her mouth here:
A native English speaker imagines the final letters because they know the whole word. A ghost of a sound is enough.
If English isn’t your first language: check the lyrics before you sing. Always, not just with Amy’s songs. Don’t trust internet lyrics sites. Buy or borrow the album, get the sheet music, do whatever is necessary to see the words exactly as Amy intended. Words are woven into the music and every single stitch has a purpose.
The b at the end of tub tells your audience that you mean this:
You need to shape that final b because tuh isn’t a word in English.
The t at the end of seat tells your audience you’re talking about this:
You need the t at the end of carpet to give your audience time to imagine where the carpet burn took place. It’s an important detail in the song. A carpet burn’s public proof of a passionate, casual encounter. It lodges in the audience’s mind, and in the mind of Amy’s boyfriend, when he spots it. It will look anything but likkle to him.
When you sing You Know I’m No Good, you’re singing Amy’s song in your own voice. You need to decide how you’ll sing likkle carpet burn to your man. In a persuasive way – as if it’s unimportant? In a dismissive way – as if you couldn’t care less? Or in a voice of self-reproach? You’re the actor in the song. You have to learn your lines, but you bring your own self to the shape of the words.
Throes needs its thr to be pronounced fully. It’s an unusual word and the audience won’t be able to guess it – so you need to help them by pronouncing it clearly. It sounds the same as throws, if that helps. Or copy the way Amy sings it:
You Know I’m No Good paints a vivid picture of a relationship and a life, in music and in words. You need to stay faithful to that picture when you sing. Add to it if you choose, but be aware of it, as your touchstone.
Some of the words were chosen for their meaning, some were chosen for their sound. Most were chosen for both. All were chosen for the music. Get the syntax right, make sure that your phrasal verbs are well connected, get your consonants clearly in place and you’re good to go.
© Sing Better English, 2014