Thursday, July 28, 2011

Amy Winehouse

Amy Winehouse's drug-addled death was a more predictable event than this morning's sunrise, and honestly, the most it elicited from me at the time was a shrug. As usual, I couldn't keep my big mouth shut about my apathy toward yet-another-rock-star-pissing-away-their-life, and I encountered--to put it mildly--some animosity from some of my dear Twitter pals about what a heinous, insensitive jerkoff I was. I feel like I owe it to some of my dear Twitter friends to dig an even deeper hole.... er, uh... I mean... clarify my thoughts on the subject. Hopefully they will come away from this going, "okay, I may not agree with some (or any) of it, but I can kinda see where he's coming from" and not, "wow, this guy is the biggest asshole since 'Goatse' and I don't know why I haven't blocked him earlier."

In the spirit of fostering the former view, I will say this: since reading more about Winehouse's life, and hearing from my friends on the subject, my view on this has softened somewhat. Was Amy Winehouse a grown woman, making her own decisions--including those that lead to her death? Absolutely. Could she have made different decisions, and gotten help with her drug addiction and the underlying emotional problems that caused it? You betcha. Was she solely culpable in her fate? Well, now, that's just a bit murkier.

First of all, I am fully cognizant of the fact that this was a human being. She was somebody's baby, with a mother and a father and a brother and friends and so on. Her loss will, no doubt, be felt deeply and irreparably by those people, as well as by many of her fans. Amy Winehouse was undoubtedly special to, and cherished by, a great many people--unfortunately, Amy Winehouse herself was apparently not among their number.

And that, my dear friends, was my original point: why should I care more about Amy Winehouse than Amy Winehouse herself did?

Amy Winehouse was a rich, successful, independent woman. Thanks to her stardom, she was probably a more worldly one than most young women her age. One would think that if her unparalleled opportunity to travel the world and meet most every kind of people didn't give her some perspective, her brushes with the law or her health problems would have. Alas, it clearly did not.

There are a great many people who battle addiction successfully, with far fewer options than Winehouse had. She had a life that most people can only dream of. Stellar looks, extraordinary talent, worldwide acclaim and incredible wealth. She had every possible resource and opportunity to get the help that she needed, and chose time and again not to. With her wealth and celebrity, she could have had the finest doctors, the best therapists, the most upscale resort rehab... hell, she could have had a 24/7/365 life coach that did nothing but follow her around and take the drinks out of her hand or the crack pipe from her lips. She made only token attempts to avail herself of these opportunities, and of course, very famously snubbed the idea with her hit song "Rehab." She FLAUNTED both her drug abuse and her "screw you" to the world at the suggestion that she get help.

This does not mean, however, that her choices or her path were easy, or were even entirely her own. There are factors at play in this scenario that, while they do not negate her responsibility for her own life, do, to some degree, challenge the idea of it being all her own doing.

One thing I have never argued in any of this is that recovery from addiction is in any way easy. Those who kick drugs or alcohol successfully usually do so only after numerous prior attempts and a tremendous amount of anguish. I cannot truthfully say that I completely empathize, since only one who has been through it can. I am, however, no stranger to addiction--in my case, food. My problem was so severe that it required surgery to deal with, and even then, I was only convinced of this when my apnea became so severe that it threatened to kill me every time I lay down to sleep. Though surgery is far from a magic bullet--I still have to work at it every single day--it made my recovery possible. As it was recently articulated to me by a dear friend: addicts do not have a surgical option. I do not argue that they have a much tougher road.

While Winehouse's fame and wealth meant that she had copious options for recovery, they were also likely a contributor to, and enabler of, her problems in the first place. Never, in all the hours of artist interviews I have watched on MTV and VH-1, has an artist ever talked about what a reasonable, supportive, charitable, selfless entity the music business is. The cutthroat, mercenary, bleed-people-dry character of that industry is the stuff of legend. It has become axiom that the music world is akin to swamp full of hungry alligators. It is all too easy for even the wary to be eaten. Record labels, managers, publicists and concert promoters are all-too-easily convinced to turn a blind eye to serious problems like alcohol and drug abuse, or make only token efforts at resolving these problems, because an artist who is in the studio or on tour makes a hell of a lot more money for all concerned than does an artist locked away in a medical facility for several months, as Winehouse needed to be. As one concert promoter told Fox:
“Amy Winehouse is an extreme example, but anyone in this business can tell you we have practically propped these folks up onstage drunk as a skunk to keep a tour going,” one concert promoter told Fox411. “Time spent in recovery is lost cash.”
Musicians in the public spotlight also face far greater pressure to engage in the drug culture than most people. Most of us don't have to contend with people going out of their way to offer us drugs. People like Amy Winehouse do.

I readily admit that Amy Winehouse may well have had as many obstacles as she did advantages, but who among us doesn't? Do these factors mitigate her responsibility in her fate? Perhaps they do. They do not, however, completely negate it. As a free, grown, independent woman, she had the obligation to think for--and take care of--herself, regardless of what those around her did.

All of this plodding, long-winded, boring diatribe leads us to the biggest point, the one that has created the most contention:

Because Amy Winehouse was primarily responsible for her own demise, does that make me less sympathetic to her than to some others?

I'm afraid that my honest answer has to be: yes it does.

There are millions upon millions of people in this world who, as Sam Harris put it, "suffer the most harrowing abridgements of their happiness for no good reason at all." Children are stricken with horrible diseases and birth defects. People are crippled and killed in accidents and natural disasters. Women are taken at knifepoint and raped. Thousands of little girls are kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery each year. Still others are mass-murdered by a delusional lunatic. The list goes on, and on, and on. These people have suffering and death visited upon them through no agency of their own, and have no choice to save themselves from their circumstances. They cannot find hope or relief--ever--even through a profoundly difficult and agonizingly painful path like that of the recovering addict.

I feel far more pity for one of these people than I do for a rich, famous rock star who parties herself to death. Perhaps that is wrong--a flaw in my humanity and compassion--but there it is. To paraphrase the response that this has gotten:

"But ALL life is special! Why can't you feel pity for both Amy Winehouse AND the Norway shooting victims?!"

First, I DO feel pity for both. I am saddened that Amy Winehouse made the decisions she made and threw away a brilliant, promising life. But I am MORE saddened by the deaths of ordinary Norwegians whose only bad choice was going to work that day. They didn't have the choice of toughing out medical treatment to save their lives.

Second, by elevating the drama, tragedy and hand-wringing over Amy Winehouse's death above and beyond the tragedies that occur to thousands of ordinary people every day, aren't you doing the very same thing--making a bigger deal about the death of one person over another? To paraphrase (I don't remember the source or I'd quote/attribute) one of the more salient Twitter comments about the whole thing: "I wish everyone was as upset when an 18 year old Marine comes home in a box as they are over Amy Winehouse drugging herself to death."

Amy Winehouse's death was mostly her own fault, but perhaps not entirely. It is sad. I feel for her family and friends left behind. It is a tragedy, but as tragedies go, there are far worse ones, and I feel proportionately worse for them. You can decide for yourself just how horrible a person that makes me.