Something queer has happened to Amy Winehouse in the six weeks since her death: she has been turned from an anti-rehab rebel into the poster girl for rehab. The tragic Camden songstress was famous for singing ‘They tried to make me go to rehab, but I said no, no, no’. Yet now her demise is being held up as a sign that all troubled folk should seek expert rehabilitation as soon as they can.
Her deeply distraught father, Mitch, is having meetings with Home Office ministers to discuss setting up more rehab centres. There’s even talk of opening something called the Amy Winehouse Rehabilitation Centre. It’s a bit like making Princess Di the patron saint of landmines.
The central tenet of the newspaper commentary on Winehouse’s death is that she should have said ‘yes, yes, yes’ to rehab — and so should the rest of us, apparently. Although no traces of illegal substances were found in her body, it is widely assumed that Winehouse’s reckless lifestyle — which involved dalliances with heroin and downing copious amounts of vodka — contributed to her death at just 27. So now, in the name of Amy, Britain must get serious about rolling out rehab services.
Last week the tabloids delighted in telling us that ‘soaring numbers’ of people have been rushing to rehab since Winehouse died. Apparently, hundreds more have been checking into the Priory chain of clinics, which help to tackle all kinds of addictions and emotional problems. Meanwhile, drug experts have informed us that Winehouse’s death shows the dangers of going ‘cold turkey’, of trying to get clean all on your lonesome. It seems you can only successfully ditch drugs and heal yourself with the guiding hand of someone with a PhD.
This remaking of Amy Winehouse as a sad advert for rehab is not on. In fact, it’s outrageous. Of course it is true that the singer had numerous problems brought on by a lifestyle that would have made Sid Vicious balk. And perhaps a little discreet health advice could have helped her. Yet, as she pointed out, in order for external assistance to work, the screwed-up person has to be ready to receive it. ‘I don’t need help, because if I can’t help myself then I can’t be helped,’ she wisely said.
Yet we shouldn’t let Amy’s demise detract from the fact that her stance on rehab, her sullen yet uplifting song about why she wouldn’t go, remains an inspiring act of defiance. In turning its nose up at that army of therapeutic know-it-alls itching to remake the rest of us as permanently sober and meek little bleaters, Winehouse’s ‘Rehab’ is one of the great rebel songs of our times.
That five-letter word, rehab, is a key motif of our thoroughly Oprahised era. It speaks to the idea that human beings are weak, fragile, incapable of delivering themselves from hardship or error. Thus we need a new caste of emotional experts to rehabilitate us. There was a time when only criminals were said to need rehabilitation — now all of us do, apparently. And rehab isn’t only offered for serious drug or drink problems; these days you can get it for everything from sex addiction to anger issues. One self-help whiz has even set up a group called Chocolate Rehab, which offers a 12-step programme for overcoming ‘addiction to chocolate’. In the US, capital of therapy culture, celebs overheard saying nasty things about gays or blacks have been made to attend ‘emotional rehab’. During a stand-up gig in 2006, Michael Richards, best known for playing Kramer in Seinfeld, made racist comments — and was promptly packed off for what one reporter described as ‘racism rehab’.
The rehab outlook psychologises what was once considered to be sinful behaviour. Promiscuity is re-labelled sex addiction; gluttony becomes chocolate addiction; a decadent, Caligulan lifestyle becomes ‘alcohol dependency’. What were once seen as moral failings on the part of an individual, failings which one should take responsibility for and overcome, are now seen as acts beyond our control, springing from the fact that we are all psychological basket cases driven by irrational urges and addictions. Our faults are not really our own, so we can only address them and improve our lives by submitting to self-styled experts. Only the rehab clinicians can give our hearts and minds the spring clean they need.
No thanks. I, like Amy, would rather take responsibility for my life and my choices. Winehouse’s hymn to self-reliance — ‘Yes I’ve been black, but then I came back’ — is a far better thing for youngsters to hear than the message that they are hapless creatures in need of rescue by the rehab racket.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated September 10, 2011