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Art, Alcoholism, Amy Winehouse

I remember the first time I heard Amy Winehouse sing: I was driving with a friend, she said check this out, and put on “Rehab”. I loved it immediately – for the song and her voice, yes, but mostly the lyrics: The casual defiance, the stick-it-to-the-man refusal to go along with Square Society’s medicalization of boozing.  Which is weird, because I actually co-wrote a book critizing that very attitude – the studied rebellion that treats every institution, from grade school to the hospital, as part of the great conformist system of mass society.

But love it I did. We all did, for mostly the same reasons. Why should Amy Winehouse go to rehab? After all, weren’t her problems – her drinking, the drugs, the depression and the self-harming – the very font of her art, her creativity, and her soul?  “Rehab” became a rallying cry for barflies everywhere.

In a previous blog post, I wrote a bit about how that sort of thinking might have helped underwrite her creative authenticity, her license to sing the blues. But it strikes me that there’s another problem, which is that the popular reception of a song like “Rehab” shows that, despite decades of public education on this issue, we still don’t take seriously the proposition that alcoholism, drug abuse, and even depression, are actual illnesses.

Imagine if, instead of being an alcoholic, Amy Winehouse had cancer. And imagine she wrote a song called “Chemo” with the lyrics “they tried to make me go to chemo, I said ‘no, no, no’”.  Or if she had an infection, and she sang “they tried to give me antibiotics, and I said ‘no, no, no.” It would be a joke. Yes, there are some people out there who believe that chemotherapy  and even antibiotics are a medical conspiracy, but they’re lunatic fringe.

But deep down, most of us don’t quite accept that alcoholism is a disease like any other. It’s self-destructive, sure, but there’s also something romantic about it.  These are not new observations: the celebration of fucked-up artists is one of the defining features of our culture. When Amy Winehouse recorded “Rehab,” she was telling the world that she didn’t buy into the notion that her drinking was an illness that needed treatment. When we bought the record by the millions and gave her a Grammy for it, we told her we agreed.