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they tried to make her go to rehab
what celebrity excess reveals about society
by tracey l. kelley (@TraceyLKelley)
pop culture

By the time this goes to press, it might be revealed that Amy Winehouse's death at age 27 was drug related. Even if it isn't a direct overdose, her history of drug abuse is well documented and sometimes, a little heart can only take so much torture before it just gives up.

Literally and figuratively.

I don't wish to speak ill of the dead, but I'm surprised at the rampant outpouring of woe regarding Winehouse's death. Yes, she was a talented singer/songwriter. Yes, she had stylistic flair. Yes, she was someone's daughter, niece, and friend.

She was also a junkie, strung out on illicit substances she chose to incorporate into her life, regardless of how many times people who loved her tried to help her get clean. We gave her money as she sang about it, and called her a genius.

If she were some broad we saw in a parking lot, a no-name woman with similar rotted teeth and spideresque arms who approached us as we carried groceries to our cars, we would avoid her. We wouldn't Twitter in mourning if we read about her death the next day. We wouldn't lay flowers on the spot in the lot where she tried to connect with us, be it for a dollar or a bottle of gin or simple acknowledgement of her existence.

Is that drug addict not worth the same amount of lament as Winehouse? Maybe that woman had a thick notebook of heartfelt lyrics she wanted to put to music, or a hidden stash of paints, brushes, and canvases she used to display the world as she envisioned it. Or maybe she was just a woman with troubles she couldn't deal with, leaving behind a mother, sister, or friend who miss her.

Society forgives celebrities for whatever they do, as long as they keep entertaining us. We encourage the afflicted artists, believing their creativity drives them to excess, but discourage the man on the bus with the boozy breath who sits too close. He hasn't endeared himself to us with his cavalier onscreen charm. We don't care what dreams he has, what talents he might possess, or how delightfully glib he is during interviews: we simply want him to sit somewhere else.

So in this way, do we contribute to the downfall of celebrities, burnishing their stars with the burdens of humanity and the expectations of gods? Perhaps Winehouse would be alive today if, as an adoring public, we held her to the same standards as we do other complete strangers who reach out for our acceptance but instead receive disregard because of their seemingly bad behavior. After all, we truly didn't know her any better than the woman in the parking lot, or the man on the bus.

Winehouse will be remembered for her stunning originality, but her body of work is not without the coda of her drug and alcohol abuse. So are we supposed to buy into the cliché that as artists, it's natural for these criminal excesses to exist and be more acceptable? Some believe there's a gossamer thread dividing genius from insanity, and walking this tightrope fosters endless creative breakthroughs. But to suggest people are incapable of artistic inspiration unless there's degradation defines the rest of us as inadequate in our pursuits.

Which hardly seems fair.

Nor is it fair to other people struggling to be understood, to express themselves, to work through the pain of whatever causes them to hide in a hazy world instead of the real one. They may never make millions joking about not going to rehab; they may never even be able to afford rehab. Imagine their confusion as they watch the news cycle document the tragically short life of one drug addict after they've dragged one of their strung-out friends to the emergency room doors, then rushed away before getting caught.

We vilify the common person prone to weakness of character, incapable of making what we consider to be right choices. We continually remain unsympathetic to these weathered and beaten souls because their fragility frightens us.

Yet we place high value on artistic endeavors as if having these abilities excuses us from the banality of other responsibilities, similar to, "Well, Einstein couldn't make a grocery list and wore the same type of suit every day, but who cares, he was Einstein." Scientifically, there's proof to support the divisional duties of the brain. However, to generalize that art is only worth the suffering put into it seems exploitative.

Maybe there's a way for creativity to be nurtured through more healthy pursuits, and we don't know of the potential only because we haven't explored it.

And instead of cherishing celebrities who desperately seek validation for their art and spotlight their troubled existences, we treat them simply as human beings.


Tracey likes to shake things up and then take the lid off. She also likes to keep the peace, especially in a safe, fuzzy place. Writer, editor, producer, yogini, ('cause yoger or yogor simply doesn't work) by day, rabid WordsWithFriends and DrawSomething! player by night. You can follow her on Twitter: @traceylkelley or @tkyogaforyou

more about tracey l. kelley


a haze of glory daze
traversing the sea of washed-up child stars
by tracey l. kelley
topic: pop culture
published: 8.27.07

yes, yes, you were bitchin’
now go away
by tracey l. kelley
topic: pop culture
published: 11.29.10


tracey kelley
7.27.11 @ 7:52a

Mitch Winehouse, Amy's father, wants to start a foundation to help people who can't afford rehab: Father Plans on Foundation


adam kraemer
7.28.11 @ 10:24a

Not to play Devil's advocate, because I agree that celebrities should be held to the same standards as everyone else, but I do have to pause at the thought of how many works of genius mankind would have missed out on over the years had certain artists, musicians, writers, etc. refrained from indulging their baser instincts. That's not to say that, as you put it, there's no "artistic inspiration unless there's degradation," but I'm not sure there's a clear distinction. Are some drugs okay for artists to indulge in (pot, acid) and others not? Is it a question of quantity? Imagine how many excellent Beatles songs would not exist were it not for recreational drug use, for example. Or paintings in the MoMA.

What if these people - Winehouse, for example - were only meant to burn brightly for a little while and then flare out? I'm not suggesting destiny here, but maybe her current body of work is how she'd always be best remembered. Some people are just more suited for shorter lifetimes, maybe. Just a thought.

tracey kelley
7.29.11 @ 8:13a

Yes, I think it's a question of quantity. There comes a point when drug and alcohol abuse greatly impacts the quality of day-to-day life and other people. Are those adequate tradeoffs for a couple of good albums or one stellar novel? Do we also have an expectation as a society that someone's work isn't as good unless they constantly teeter on the edge? Again -- exploitative.

Burning brightly indeed -- when you look at the other artists who died at 27 (the endless comparisons have already been made) each one did pretty much what Winehouse did: lived hard, loved hard, died young. Maybe it is destiny: maybe they wouldn't have been able to produce what they did if they hadn't fallen into such incredible excess.

All that being said, I still think The Doors suck.

tracey kelley
10.26.11 @ 12:18p

Alas. Winehouse: "Death by Misadventure".

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