A Defense Of Amy Winehouse: Wind Your Neck In, William J. Bennett

Amy Winehouse and William J. Bennett

It didn’t take long, did it? Media outlets, left with nothing to say about the life and sad death of Amy Winehouse, find themselves bringing in commentators to put forward their own specialized and highly biased theories about what happened. Some of these commentators may not be that familiar with Amy’s work, or the tangled mess of her public private life, but they’ll have concocted a story. As with any tragic situation, the race is on to find out what lessons can be learned from the situation, what will benefit future generations. Fingers need to be pointed, blame apportioned.

Step forward William J. Bennett. Now, I’m told he was once the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, working with President George H.W. Bush, but if I’m honest, his is not a name that has made it over this side of the Atlantic. He’s got some interesting points to make about our Amy though, and has taken the time to express them to CNN. Let’s have a look at a few and see what’s what, shall we?

“Her most famous song may have been about substance abuse, but it mocked urges and demands to enter a rehab facility for her addiction problems”

Yes it did. It’s a song, an expression of one emotional moment, right or wrong. It also said that she fully understood that she had a problem, and that she got her biggest high from the music of Ray Charles and Donny Hathaway. It also said she was dependent on friends and her father for support. “Rehab” is a defiant song, but it’s not one that makes light of addiction.

“Then, in 2008, 24 years old and in the midst of story after story about her drug abuse, Amy Winehouse won Grammy Awards for best record of the year, best song of the year and best new artist of the year.”

That’s because she had just made the best record of the year (“Back To Black”), the best song of the year and therefore she was clearly the best new artist of the year.

“With those awards, a message was sent: Mock addiction, create a rallying cry for those in its grip, blow your life up in every aspect other than financial success and name recognition, and you will be rewarded with the industry’s gold medals.”

Well, maybe, if there was only one singer with a drug problem in the history of music, and the awards were given irrespective of the quality of that singer’s work. That’s not really the case though, is it?

A louder message might be: Write a brilliant song from a painfully honest place, sing it as if the act of singing is tearing up your nervous system, add it to a stockpile of equally brilliant songs you have written which deliberately paint you as being a shambolic mess in the middle of a terrible breakup, sing all of these songs in an impossibly deep howl, backed by an irrepressibly muscular soul band, using old Motown song arrangements as a template, and you will be rewarded with the industry’s gold medals.

You will not care about those gold medals however, because making the album cut you to the bone and every round of applause is a crooked and salty finger in the wound. Also, the defiant song about going into rehab is quoted back at you endlessly by a thousand witless journalists who are fascinated by your descent into drug hell. A descent that is partly fuelled by the stress of being hounded by them everywhere you go. That’s the message most people got from Amy Winehouse’s Grammy wins.

“A good place to start learning the lesson is the Grammy Awards nominating committee. Did they have any problem or pause whatsoever in emptying their cabinet of awards for such a song or such a character?”

OK, so he didn’t listen to the song beyond that first “no no no,” we’ve covered that. But what’s this about character? Do the Grammy Awards have to make a value judgement about the kind of people that can win? And if they did, would that not rule out – let’s make a conservative estimate here – 80% of all musicians? Would that not mean that anyone of less than pure character would be ineligible to win a Grammy? All of those songs about bad behaviour, all of those heartbreak songs and lustful songs and going out partying songs – anything, for example, written by Hank Williams, apart from his gospel songs – would be disqualified.

And what kind of message would THAT send? Oh yes, that the Grammys doesn’t know what music is for.

“In light of Winehouse’s death, it is my hope that there is a lot of introspection in the entertainment industry and that the producers and Grammy heads are asking themselves how they might take the problems and plights of the falling star in front of them more seriously, seeing the performer more as a person and less as a royalty check.”

I have to say, I hope something similar to this. Not because the “producers and Grammy heads” have any reason to feel responsible for Amy’s drug use, that would be mad, but because we are ALL guilty of dehumanising people in the public eye, and we should all try and rein it in. Why, William J. Bennett, fresh from saying Amy Winehouse was the wrong kind of person to win a Grammy, just dismissed the entire record industry for failing to try and prevent something that he knows full well they actually DID try and prevent. And how do we know he knows this? What’s the first line in “Rehab”? Exactly.

“There was a time when we took the drug issue more seriously in and from our culture, and it was not that long ago.”

And it has continued up until now. I hate to sound like a broken record, but he really should listen to this “Rehab” song. It has important things to say.

“When college basketball star Len Bias died from a cocaine overdose in 1986, this country lost an athlete of great fame and promise. But his tragic death did one other thing, too: It set off a national dialogue and campaign about illegal drug use.”

Forgive me, I don’t live in the U.S. and I’ve no idea whether your national dialogue is the same as ours, but trust me, when Amy Winehouse is on the front of every newspaper looking like a husk, and the reason for her physical decline is clearly to do with drugs, at a time when Pete Doherty is doing likewise and Kate Moss is being sacked from jobs for being pictured taking drugs, you can bet that we’re having a dialogue about drugs. I’m pretty sure you are too; otherwise The Wire would be about very little.

“Perhaps the entertainment, education and sports industries can take this, our latest human tragedy, as a wakeup call and start a national campaign once again. Such a campaign would begin with taking responsibility for what goes on within our schools and professional industries. It should continue onward, with the industries internally policing their achievers who are in trouble and getting them to rehab, not ignoring their lifestyle or saying it’s none of their business or rewarding them in blatant disregard of their problems.”

And here’s where we get to the bit that makes me wonder what a director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy actually does. Clearly he can’t know that getting people to rehab does not equate to rehabilitating them. Everyone has the right to refuse treatment.

He can’t think that internally policing musicians – the same way the education and sports industries attempt to internally police their workers – is going to work. They’re not teachers, they’re not athletes, they’re people who use their feelings for work, in order to communicate to audiences who very probably are not stone cold sober. The dynamic between service provider and client is not the same.

No one seriously believes that the music business wanted Amy Winehouse to take drugs, or that her drug use was something anyone chose to reward. I’ve seen her in concert, I can tell you honestly that no one in the audience was happy about it, and the promoters weren’t either. If she could have written that album and then been happy and healthy on tour, it would have made no difference to the songs and would have been a wonderful thing to behold.

The simple, tragic facts are these: Amy Winehouse was hugely successful, and Amy Winehouse did take drugs. These two statements are not related; they exist in parallel. And by trying to smudge everything together in order to make a vague point about how best to tackle the broader issue of drugs in society, William J. Bennett is just trying to twist a sad thing into a weapon and use it to attack people he personally disapproves of.

One last thing: Amy is British. There are other awards ceremonies, y’know.

What do you think? Tell us here.

The opinions put forth in this piece are solely those of Fraser McAlpine.

Fraser McAlpine

Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 13 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Music.

He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage.

Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic

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