Amy Winehouse is a household name in my life.
I’ve been transfixed by Winehouse’s soulful voice since I heard “Rehab” almost fourteen years ago. Winehouse delivered honest and blunt lyrics with a smooth razzle that is not just notable, but praiseful. Winehouse’s talent, personal history of mental illness and substance disorder, and tragic death at the age of 27 of alcohol poisoning has left someone like me moved and preoccupied by her legacy.
Look, I understand that after the last week, month, year, four years we’re all tired of talking about Donald Trump. But after Trump used Joe Biden’s son Hunter’s struggles with cocaine as a form of an attack on the democratic nominee for president, I thought about Winehouse.
Stay with me.
“Hunter got thrown out of the military. He was thrown out, dishonorably discharged* for cocaine use—he didn’t have a job until you became vice president, and once you became vice president, he made a fortune, Trump said. This is the same kind of verbiage filled with a finger-pointing shame based on a person who has a substance use disorder that the media gave to Winehouse a decade ago.
I won’t be first to say that we, fans and once spectators of Winehouse, were complicit in her death. The documentary Amy puts the audience in that uncomfortable position and makes us acknowledge that our treatment of and jokes about Winehouse were harmful. I remember at the time of its release very few people actually thinking “Rehab” was a song worthy of being called art. Instead of her bipolar, eating, and substance use disorders being responded with sympathy and understanding, Halloween costumes of her likeness with a bottle of Jack Daniels popped up. Like Britney, she’d be the victim of jokes and ridicule.
Imagine what those sitting at home whose lives or loved one’s life resembles Winehouse’s must feel.
To a degree, we’ve improved our perception of those with mental illness and substance use disorder, especially for those in the public eye. The documentary Amy is a mainstream acknowledgement of our past mistreatment through our attitudes towards Winehouse. More recently, it was announced two new box sets of Winehouse’s music would be released later this year. Millie Bobby Brown of Stranger Things fame called Winehouse an “icon” and claimed she wants to play Winehouse in the imminent biopic of the late singer. Due to the public consensus so many years back that Winehouse was a moral failure, I couldn’t even imagine we’d be respecting her music and celebrity to this degree.
Yet, after hearing the president’s comments, I’m not sure we’ve come very far. I don’t look to Trump to be a moral compass by any means, but the way he talked about addiction is what many preach but don’t practice. In the same debate where Trump used Hunter’s cocaine use as a verbal assault, Trump pushed to reopen the economy in response to the substance misuse related suicides, an effect of social distancing and economic hardship. It’s apparent that COVID-19 has led to increased hardship for people psychologically and for people in addiction, and generally, I appreciate the attention to those struggling with said issues in a public forum. However, it’s all a show. One can’t claim they are for the wellness of those with mental illness and substance use disorders yet frame addiction as a familial character flaw on another.
Trump’s comments mirror what most of society does in acknowledging mental health and substance use struggles: most are selective about mental health and substances as it aligns with their comfort levels and how they’d like to be perceived, but never do the work of the internalized, habitual, less apparent discrimination. One can’t listen to Winehouse without taking ownership over the disparaging comments they might have said in the past based on her publicized battles. One can’t stress the importance of self-care and then get out of dodge when their best friend has a panic attack.
As consumers of the media, it’s necessary to call out and dissect the harder to notice bias because we are what we consume. Addiction advocates told The Daily Beast that Trump’s comments were not helpful to those at home struggling and make it more difficult for them to get help because of . One professional called Trump’s words “wholly unconstructive and serves to perpetuate misconceived perceptions of addiction.”
While Hunter and Winehouse contain two different types of celebrity, the way the public talked about Winehouse might not have saved just her life, but some of the lives of people who listen to Amy.
Today, most are not making jokes about Winehouse. But is the posthumous deserved praise a separation of the art from the artist? Have we truly acknowledged and accepted Winehouse’s full life that includes her talent as well as her mental illnesses and substance use disorder? Or have we boxed that part away, choosing to be ignorant about her personal life because it makes us feel uncomfortable? Can’t we have all of Amy? Is society ready to do the hard work against discrimination both blatantly and inherently?
I wish I had clear answers to those questions.
I do know that our current approach is still unsustainable. Whether we could have stopped Winehouse’s death is truly unknown. However, listeners, fans, and readers of this post should know that a death as a result as a mental health and substance misuse struggle is preventable and recovery is completely attainable. It actually goes beyond that – one is not just worthy of recovery, but of also a full life of art and artist that does not use their past as a political attack.
This week’s playlist can be found here.
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*Trump was incorrect – Hunter was not dishonorably discharged.
Credit to Soren Solkaer
Amy Winehouse is a household name in my life.