Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Rethinking "Rehab" at T+7 years

On October 30, 2006, Amy Winehouse released what would be her seminal album, Back to Black. It remains, to this day, her best-known work, and an excellent case can be made that it is her best artistic work. Listening to the album today provides some context for our current great female Brit vocalist, the slightly less slender, equally bluesy Adele. The undeniable, inescapable prime meridian in Back to Black is not actually its title track (although "Back to Black" remains an excellent work, every bit as simultaneously familiar and groundbreaking now as in 2006), but rather "Rehab." For our purposes, it suffices to summarize "Rehab" simply: the song explains in detail why Amy Winehouse will not be going to rehab. It is equally important to preserve the song, for a moment, in the cultural context in which it was released. In 2006, there were some rumors that Winehouse might have a more than passing familiarity with the sort of reality enhancing substances commonly enjoyed by members of the artistic class. If you bought the album, you probably also knew somebody who knew somebody who had been to a Winehouse performance that she allegedly (1) arrived extremely late to, (2) left before the natural conclusion of, (3) did not seem to be in her right mind during, or (4) some or all of 1 through 3. And so “Rehab” was consumed in the contemporary cultural context that Winehouse likely had a recreational drug habit that rated somewhere between “heavy recreational” and “marginally serious.” And in that context, her fans were all too happy to accept, agree with, and sing harmoniously along with her litany of reasons why she neither needed nor would be accepting any trips to Hazelden. Of course, the problem with this story is that, like a Leonardo DiCaprio/Kate Winslet historio-romantic vehicle, we all know how the story actually ends. We know now that the story ends with Winehouse’s dead body being removed from her London apartment following an overdose that had become essentially a foregone conclusion for more than year before the actual event. Perhaps the only surprise was that it was alcohol, and not one of its more powerful cousins, that ultimately caused her death. And knowing what we know perfects the question: do we now feel differently about the song than we did back in 2006? Should we feel differently? Answering that question takes us inescapably into the discussion of how we consume, in every sense of the word, celebrity in our post-post-post-modern culture. Any fan of “The Real Housewives of….” ought to be solidly of the view that our enjoyment of “Rehab” should be in no way diminished or adjusted solely because we happen to be rooting for the destruction of its author. Celebrity, thusly viewed, is like ink: we use it for its purpose, understanding that in using it, we exhaust its vessel, which is discarded when it holds nothing more that we want. Understanding that point of view requires neither approbation nor censure; this is simply how some people feel. What is more interesting is exploring the mindset of those who feel repulsed by the notion that we should be okay with using and discarding our celebrities. After all, they would have us understand, these are human beings! How could we be so careless? A hundred arguments could be made on either side, and other writers have made them with greater or lesser skill. Rather than exploring what ought to be, let us take a moment to acknowledge what is. At the moment, our culture of celebrity rewards the fleeting, fast-burning, and destined for impact. That is the world of the actual, even if some may not believe it is ideal. But if we step back to 2006, we might also find reason to judge ourselves a bit more harshly than we’d like. It’s not as if Winehouse met her end by falling drunkenly in front of a bus. She eventually died in exactly the way many of her fans (at either end of the scale of engagement) realized she might. It was neither unforeseen nor unforeseeable. Any slightly informed listener humming along to “Rehab” in 2008 could have told you there was a better-than-passing possibility that Winehouse would be joining the ranks of Hendrix or Cobain. And if that didn’t diminish our enjoyment of the song then, then what right do we have to feign indignance and say it bothers us now? All that has happened is the occurrence of what we had good reason to expect would occur. If we were truly such good Samaritans, shouldn’t we have tut-tutted the song during the Bush years? And of course, with only a few exceptions, we didn’t. We were unconsciously ready to consume that celebrity, for as long as the ink still flowed. In the end, the aforementioned “Real Housewives” viewers may simply be the most enlightened of us all. They have achieved enough self-awareness to admit where they stand. If we insist now on a cultural rethinking of “Rehab,” it may have more to do with trying to convince ourselves that we aren’t the people we are, than with making any improvements going forward. Rationalizing our actions can be the most powerful addiction of all.

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