Jul/Aug 2023  •   Nonfiction


by Hallel Yadin

Photo Art by Michael Dooley

Photo Art by Michael Dooley

New York City (2023)

It was a frigid January night, and my roommate and I were nursing G&Ts outside the queer bar. It was loud inside, and at that particular moment it was very important the acoustics lent themselves to talking about girls. When our icy fingers were just about ready to fall off our icy hands, Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams" came on, and my roommate looked at me expectantly. "We have to go in," they said. ("Dreams" is my karaoke song; we've never actually done karaoke together but you would not believe how often I talk about how "Dreams" is my karaoke song.)

As we entered the bar, someone whom we would come to learn was named Jess bounded up to us and said, conspiratorially, "Welcome to Moms Night!" There were, in fact, two moms at the bar with their adult children, and not very many other people at all. The DJ booth was largely unmanned, and we took it upon ourselves to DJ Moms Night. It was the most fun I'd had in at least three weeks. The first song I played, to the crowd of two's delight, was Amy Winehouse's "Valerie." Should we tell them? my roommate stage-whispered as we danced. I considered for a beat. Nah. They nodded in agreement.

We weren't at the bar coincidentally. We were there because it was on the corner of the block we were visiting, the location of the studio where Amy Winehouse recorded "Valerie."


"Valerie," The Zutons (2006)

The original "Valerie" is a 2006 song by British indie rock band The Zutons. It did quite well—made it all the way to number two on the UK charts—but it was eclipsed by Amy Winehouse's version, which was released on Mark Ronson's cover album Version. By dint of Winehouse's cover, the song fundamentally changed. A man sometimes, going out by himself and looking upon the water and thinking about a woman with whom he is clearly not in contact, simply has a different tenor than a woman doing that. Unlike the original, in Winehouse's version, it sounds like Valerie may actually want to come back. All of the questions—won't you come on over, stop making a fool out of me? are you still dizzy?—land as bald invitations. The song is about yearning.[1]

The Zutons version is downtempo indie rock, and Winehouse's version is a hot R&B version—the irrepressible Winehouse version of R&B. That in and of itself signals something. The song is sexier. This incongruence was felt in the recording of the song. Mark Ronson, Winehouse's longtime close collaborator, first heard The Zutons original approximately five minutes before he and Winehouse started recording the cover. He wasn't quite sold on the song, but he knew he wanted Winehouse on the album, and she had a vision. According to his retelling, "We played this kind of like downtempo, mellow version of it. And then, as everyone's packing up their guitars and literally slamming the cases shut, she was like, 'Ah! Could we just try one way where it's just like... I know it's dumb, but where it's like, bonk-chk-a-bonk, like an oversimplified version?' Everyone was like, 'Ugh, Jesus Christ!' and took their guitars out. We played it—they probably did two takes, and it was great—and that's the version, the one that people know."[2]


"Valerie," Amy Winehouse (2007)

Whether or not Winehouse herself intended it to be a "queer" song, "Valerie" is a queer song in practice. It's Pronoun Gay, to be sure, and more than that, it has taken on queer meaning. Do we need more evidence than Brittany and Santana using it as a coming-out song on Glee?[3]

(It's also worth noting that keeping the lyrics the same was definitely a choice—pronoun switches were kosher on Version.)[4]

It is perhaps fitting that one of her most enduring songs is a cover, because Winehouse unabashedly loved them. She favored '60s music, and she had a particular affinity for the girl groups of the era. They matched her musical sensibilities. In 2006, she said, "I loved those heartbreak songs they used to do, especially the way the girls sounded so heavenly. Yet they were also singing about the kind of heartbreak you would find at the bottom of a bottle of whiskey. They knew all about sorrow."

As one test case, Winehouse's posthumous album Lioness: Hidden Treasures is nearly half covers: "A Song for You," "The Girl from Ipanema," "Body and Soul" with Tony Bennett, "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?," and "Our Day Will Come." This is certainly a squarely yearnful, and often Pronoun Gay, assortment of songs. Winehouse told us herself, she likes these songs because they're sad. What power did she get out of reclaiming them for her own oeuvre?

So many queer practices are about taking things apart and reworking them. Queer signifiers are often workaday, functional objects reclaimed—carabiners, bandanas. By taking on this parallel significance, they are reworked entirely. Sometimes the practice is a little more active; see: drag, burlesque, collaging, quilting. They of course aren't exclusively queer practices, but they have taken on specific significance within queer communities. Covering itself can be a queer process. With covers, the patchwork is less apparent, but like any palimpsest, it's there.[5] [6]

Winehouse had such a distinct and singular style, the very fact that she covered "Valerie" imposed a different meaning onto it, one informed by her body of work. Winehouse's irrepressible version of R&B—itself a reinterpretation of a Black genre—rewrites "Valerie" entirely. As Pitchfork put it in its review of Version, "the Zutons' 'Valerie' gets mauled by Amy Winehouse, bent and twisted until it sounds like a spare part of 'Rehab.'"[7] Honestly: so what? There are worse songs to bend and twist.


New York City (2021)

I had actually first visited the studio where "Valerie" was recorded in 2021. I now understand my goal was to borrow some of the gravity of the song for myself. One of the pleasures of resonating with a song is the conceited belief that on some level, however improbably, it might have been written just for you. Visiting the place where it was recorded afforded me an opportunity to lean into that known delusion. Our senses of self are fundamentally influenced by the physical spaces we inhabit. I have a friend who still lives in my former building, where we met, and to this day I reflexively check the packages in the foyer for my name whenever I visit.

By going to the studio and standing in front of it and feeling some feelings, I was remaking the studio itself. I gave it a new symbolic meaning in my life—a gentle power we all hold and yield when we claim art as ours. (This, incidentally, is exactly what I did when I anointed "Dreams," which fucking kills me, as my karaoke song.)

Collaging, covering, and so forth are part of the same process, although their creators perhaps exert more agency. The products of these artistic processes are so resonant because their histories are plainly legible. They speak to an irreconcilable yearning. What can never actually be ours is the past. For those of us who've transitioned in any of the countless ways queer people transition, the discordance between our understanding of ourselves and others' understandings of us can be disarming. The practice of reworking reminds us that the past, for better or for worse, may be inaccessible, but it's never lost.


"Valerie" as tribute song (2011, 2020)

"Valerie" itself was remade in that way after Winehouse's death in 2011. It became a tribute song. In many ways, it's an illogical song for this purpose. It's not one of the many singular songs she wrote herself, or off of one of her albums. It doesn't speak directly to her life, at least in any way she was public about.

It also, as Naya Rivera's "signature" song on Glee, became one of Naya's tribute songs after her similarly tragic and untimely death. Rivera is an interesting figure as someone who was not queer but spoke openly about how happy she was to be a queer figure nonetheless. Sometimes the meanings we impose on things are more potent than what they really are.[8]


"Valerie" by Amy Winehouse, music video (2019)

Winehouse's entire visage was, to some degree, doing this with her beloved '60s girl groups: the exaggerated beehive and cat-eye makeup were key elements of that aesthetic taken to draggy proportions. In the song's music video (jarringly released in 2019, years after Winehouse's death), several clubgoers join producer Mark Ronson onstage to sing along with the recorded track. The video description reads, "As Amy Winehouse couldn't make the video shoot, production came up with the concept of Mark Ronson inviting multiple Amy's to perform on stage with Jazz musicians in an underground club." In singing the song—or, more accurately, Winehouse's version of it—they briefly become her.[9]

"Queering" as a verb is about as much of a meme as "yearning," but that minimization elides that queering is an entirely serious process. It's exactly this reworking process, taking something from which you are shut out and making it yours. It can be a personal process as much as a societal process. Self-making is iterative.

For me, for a long time, I didn't have access to the experiences that would ultimately inform how I understand myself. I can understand the appeal of picking someone and "becoming" them. The alternative, more gratifying but slower, is piecing it together as it comes.


New York City (2023)

By the time I returned to the rowhouse-cum-recording studio, I was less attached to the meaning of the building. During my 2021 jaunt, I drew a lot of comfort from physically being there. In general, that was the way I experienced New York, where I had at that point lived for less than a year. This trip, I felt I had grown much more grounded in general—at least had reached a point where I didn't feel compelled to go to literal buildings to make sense of a song I like. As it turns out, my inner life was much more portable. Tapping into my ability to remake things was an important part of that; I became more comfortable going into anything, because I knew I could make it mine.

The studio is in many ways nondescript, in a brown row house covered in graffiti on a primarily residential block in Brooklyn. There was an auto shop next door and a new-construction development across the street. It was late on a Sunday—not that my roommate had made any particular arrangements to actually enter the studio had we come when it was open—and we just stood and looked at it. We stayed for a long time and had the feeling of being somewhere important.

Later that evening at the bar, as acting co-DJ of Moms Night, I queued Donna Summer's "Last Dance" for what ended up being said moms' last dance. I had a hunch they would love it—the moms and I had very similar musical sensibilities—and they did. The moms beckoned my roommate and me over and folded us into their huddle. "I was 18 when this came out!" one said in either wonder or bewilderment. We swayed together in a tipsy circle as the first verse built and broke when the chorus dropped.

"Last Dance" is from the soundtrack of the 1978 disco comedy Thank God It's Friday. In it, Donna Summer's character is desperate for the DJ to play her single. The final scene is worth a rewatch on YouTube.[10]

The song is unusual in that it begins as a ballad before breaking out into disco. As Summer said of writing it, "Why not start the song slow and then break out into it so people can start together, and then they can swing themselves out and start dancing, you know, the way they dance. And it was a format that worked for us very well."[11] Prescient! The song works better with some contrast, the slow build making the disco bit that much more rousing. (I'm not saying that another song where Summer does this, noted Pronoun Gay cover "MacArthur Park," is queer, but I am saying Summer's take on "I recall the yellow cotton dress foaming like the wave on the ground beneath your knees" does evoke one particular woman with whom I definitely had a lesbian relationship.)

Disco in general is a genre embracing the idea that different versions of the same thing can serve different functions. Most songs have a disco version and a radio version, with the disco version being significantly longer. The two versions are often mastered differently—that is, one is not a reworking of the other, "main" one, but they are both recorded separately as stand-alone tracks. There's no shame in saying different things are necessary for different settings.

This, to me, is what "Valerie" is. What matters is what we do with the art others have produced for us to hold. Sometimes, like the DJ in the movie, we just have to recognize what's in front of us. A song is portable in a way a recording studio is not.

For all of these reasons, it's an excellent scene with which to end Thank God It's Friday, a movie that posits that a night out is an endeavor worth chronicling. With the right music, at the right time, that may very well be true.


[1] https://leximcmenamin.substack.com/p/on-queer-yearning

[2] https://www.yahoo.com/now/mark-ronson-remembers-amy-winehouses-iconic-valerie-cover-she-knew-what-a-great-song-it-was-181023439.html

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oRGNh5D2Lfc

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vngbxwRPIOw

[5] https://hyperallergic.com/341239/the-quintessentially-queer-art-of-collage/

[6] https://www.zakfoster.com/shop/queer-quilters-volume-2-p7pb4-gn87f

[7] https://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/10299-version/

[8] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5RkN9eHtsRc

[9] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bixuI_GV5I0

[10] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aTs5D60wI5Y

[11] https://www.npr.org/2012/05/18/153004033/fresh-air-remembers-donna-summer-queen-of-disco