Why Amy Winehouse matters

Writing the singer off as another celebrity junkie ignores the bigger issue: The failure of the War on Drugs

Topics: Drugs, Celebrity, Amy Winehouse,

Why Amy Winehouse matters

As the news filtered across the social media sphere about the death of singer Amy Winehouse, I found myself strangely saddened by this loss. After all, wasn’t this just another celebrity whose life had run amok in a very predictable fashion? But aside from the odd (and perhaps intentional?) fact that she died in her 27th year like so many other famous rock stars of the “27 Club” (including Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Brian Jones), something about Amy’s tragic exodus from life struck me in a distinctive way.

Even without knowing the exact cause of death, there really is very little doubt as to what ended the life of the diva most famous for refusing to go to rehab. I’m sure my first impression of “Well I saw that one coming” upon hearing the news was hardly unique.

Winehouse had attended rehab on at least three occasions even though her bluesy, instant hit “Rehab” emphatically stated, “No, no, no.” Multiple incidences of staggering intoxication during performances and well-publicized events of drug-induced insanity made it clear this woman was having serious trouble with substances.

What really struck me about this death, following so closely on a horrific scene of mass slaughter in Norway, was how many people opined that we should ignore Winehouse and focus instead on “real” world events: Norway, Libya, Afghanistan, Somalia and our own tens of thousands who die from lack of healthcare at home. After all, what’s the death of yet another junkie celebrity when compared to these horrors?

The answer is, of course, there is no comparison. While every needless death is tragic, we can still manage to look at all of these terrible happenings in their own light and realize that acknowledging one does not diminish any of the others. In the case of Winehouse, aside from the fact that we all suffer in an important way when an amazing talent is taken so early, my hope is that her death will help us recognize how the “war on drugs” has left far more casualties than successes.

Since drug abuse in the U.S. alone is purported to cause 19,000 deaths a year, it is clear that this is not a problem we should be ignoring. By outlawing these substances, we have only succeeded in turning huge portions of the population into criminals. Over a million people are incarcerated for drugs in this country every year — the vast majority of whom are people of color.

All the while it’s obvious that the criminalization of drugs does practically nothing to stem the negative outcomes addiction brings. It certainly didn’t keep Winehouse away despite her own run-ins with the law. Instead, black market drug money floods into cartels, which have murdered tens of thousands and laid waste to countries across the globe, from Mexico to Afghanistan. As we learned the hard way during the disastrous period of the 18th Amendment in this country, prohibition not only doesn’t work, it fosters a criminal underclass of sociopaths who prey on the weak while reaping obscene profits.

As Winehouse was also an alcoholic, it’s important to note the role of alcohol too. Abuse of booze is reported to claim nearly 35,000 U.S. lives annually with an additional 40,000 killed in car crashes alone. The costs to productivity, healthcare and society are enormous.

One might ask why I’d advocate for legalizing drugs when we have such horrendous results with our perfectly legal alcohol, so I’ll explain the difference.

First of all, alcohol is advertised freely and constantly. The alcohol industry spends over a billion dollars a year on getting the message out to use its products. Per the site U.S.NoDrugs.com:

Each year the typical young person in the United States is inundated with more than 1,000 commercials for beer and wine coolers in addition to several thousand fictional drinking incidents on television

Obviously this depiction of liquor as safe, fun and sexy has an enormous effect on how much the substance is used and abused, much as the unfettered advertising of cigarettes encouraged smoking back in the day. It’s time for public perceptions to change concerning alcohol and its potential for abuse. The best way is for advertising to be curtailed and education about the consequences of misuse stepped up.

It’s also important to point out that no one is advocating that recreational drugs be advertised. Responsible legalization efforts are clear in their message that drugs should be legal but also taxed and regulated, preferably available in pharmacy-type settings with advertising of any kind forbidden. This makes sense.

The argument that a legal source of drugs will make procurement easier is simply false. I have yet to meet a single drug user who had any trouble whatsoever obtaining his or her product. It’s out there and readily available. The sad fact is that along with the immense violence engendered by the trade, users also suffer great harm from unregulated products that vary widely in potency and are often laced with dangerous substances.

Most important, we must ramp up our education and rehabilitation networks to have any kind of success in curbing this incredible waste of human lives. If we took the costs we plow into the drug war and directed even a small fraction of it into prevention and treatment, we’d not only save thousands of lives, we’d even help our deficit situation. One estimate is that legalizing drugs could inject $76.8 billion a year into the U.S. economy, with $44.1 billion from law enforcement savings, and at least $32.7 billion in tax revenue. This doesn’t even take into account the savings in healthcare costs and productivity from drug-related disease and disability. Ten years after Portugal decriminalized drugs, the nation, which once had one of the worst records for drug abuse in Europe, cut usage in half — and saw a huge drop in drug-related crimes. One can only hope that the rest of the world will finally wake up and take notice.

Amy Winehouse obviously was a tortured soul who repeatedly failed in her attempts to get clean. It’s a sad fact that even under the best of circumstances not everyone survives their drug and alcohol addiction. She also had an amazing talent that we don’t see every day, which makes her death a great loss for the arts. The skinny white chick with the amazing gutsy voice moved thousands, and she is credited with helping launch other unusually creative women artists such as Lady Gaga into the realm of musical success. At the same time, her insane behavior while under the influence both riveted and repelled. But in the end she simply became yet another poster child for just how devastating an unchecked spiral into addiction can be. Perhaps we can take note of this and move toward changes that can save lives and relieve suffering for millions.

While watching this informal and soulful recording of her singing “Valerie” I was moved by an alternative picture of Amy. Here, instead of the defiant and belligerent rock star, we see a vulnerable and even fragile human being who sadly got caught up in a disease that was simply a lot bigger than she was.

So rest in peace, Amy Winehouse. Your battle with your demons is at an end and all we’re left with is the music.

But oh what music it is.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>