Monday, August 8, 2011

A Writer's Moral Responsibility?

Unless you live under a rock and communicate with smoke signals, you've probably heard that Amy Winehouse died. Now, I couldn't name a single song by Winehouse to save my life. Not until she died.

I mean, I'd certainly heard her name, but it was always associated with scandal. I knew she was a singer. That was the extent of it.

Now, I could tell you the name of at least one song: Rehab. And that's the song that prompts this post, because in the wake of Winehouse's death at the age of 27, there were a lot of people commenting on her death, the reasons she died so young, and what, if anything, could have been done to save her from her path to self-destruction.

One commentator went so far as to state that it was not only a mistake to give Winehouse a Grammy for Rehab, but that she might still be alive if she hadn't won the coveted prize.

Her most famous song may have been about substance abuse, but it mocked urges and demands to enter a rehab facility for her addiction problems. Then, in 2008, 24 years old and in the midst of story after story about her drug abuse, Amy Winehouse won Grammy Awards for best record of the year, best song of the year and best new artist of the year

With those awards, a message was sent: Mock addiction, create a rallying cry for those in its grip, blow your life up in every aspect other than financial success and name recognition, and you will be rewarded with the industry's gold medals. Today, at age 27, she is dead. The cause of death is unknown, but drugs took a toll on her life even if they did not they cause her death.
We, of course, do not know what will become of Winehouse's artistic legacy: Her singing talent was compared to Billie Holiday's, and there was a lot of talent in her. But her industry should take a lesson from her short life and early death and create a legacy of it -- or at least learn something from it.

A good place to start learning the lesson is the Grammy Awards nominating committee. Did they have any problem or pause whatsoever in emptying their cabinet of awards for such a song or such a character?

Did one judge say: "Wait, I think we might be sending the wrong message here"? Or, rather, did they do everything they could to get her to the Grammy Awards even after she was barred from entering the United States? The answer is the latter -- and she appeared for her awards by video feed from Great Britain.

It now looks like Amy Winehouse joins the sad list of other talented entertainers whose lives were cut down by drug abuse. Citing the drug-fueled deaths of other troubled musicians at the same age, some are speculating there is something special, or ominous, about the age of 27. But change the age by just a few years, and you still have too much evidence of too much talent cut too short by substance abuse. From Heath Ledger to Brittany Murphy to River Phoenix to Andy Gibb to Elvis Presley, the list just goes on and on. Age is not the problem; drug abuse is.

In light of Winehouse's death, it is my hope that there is a lot of introspection in the entertainment industry and that the producers and Grammy heads are asking themselves how they might take the problems and plights of the falling star in front of them more seriously, seeing the performer more as a person and less as a royalty check.

Now, I have to admit, my reaction to this piece surprised me. I mean, I've been known to claim the moral high ground a time or two. And the idea of Winehouse's song is appalling to me. Mocking rehabilitation, mocking the efforts of those who try to get people help so that they can live free from addiction? Yeah, there's probably a reason I don't know Winehouse's music - it's of no interest to me.

But when it comes to giving awards, is that the consideration?


As authors, we're entertainers. Some of us may write more obvious entertainment, and some of us may write things we hope inspire people to think about serious matters at times. But in determining the best book of the year, or best song, or album or short story or movie, our primary focus can't be on the message.

It's when we get sidetracked on secondary issues that we lose focus on the real issue; great writing. I don't know that I would have agreed if I'd watched the Grammy Awards the year Winehouse won, but that doesn't matter either. What matters is that the committee should use the criteria for evaluating the music, and determine the best contender in each category. The awards weren't set up with the stated objective of making a moral statement or setting a certain type of example.

I have a cousin (third) who's an award-winning songwriter, and some might think this song he co-wrote and won awards for isn't the best example, either. I think it's a great song, and deserving of the awards it won. The writing's superb, and it does its job; it entertains.

Whatever moral responsibility we have, I think is for us to determine. And I don't think it's write to put that burden on organizations. What's next - reviewers? Amy Winehouse expressed a sentiment in her song. It may not be one I can relate to or agree with, but she gave people a chance to see where she was coming from, and she made it clear where she was at. And at the very least, her family should in time be able to live with the knowledge that you can't help someone who doesn't want to be saved. Winehouse's fate was of her own choosing, and if she hadn't won those awards, it probably wouldn't have made a difference.

Agree? Disagree?


Gerald So said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gerald So said...

I disagree (slightly) only because I don't think text can be completely separated from its message. On some level, we evaluate text by how effectively it delivers its message. Isn't concern for message part of what separates great prose/poetry from good? Are we truly more entertained by writing that has no purpose/message/goal but to elicit our gut reactions?

I don't know Winehouse's music, either, and I don't know what criteria they use to judge the Grammys. Music does seem to have more elements than text--melodic composition for one--so it's possible to separate melody and performance from text.

This much said, like you, I don't think it would have changed things had Winehouse not won.

Dana King said...

I'm generally thought of as quite liberal, but I like to think of myself as a responsible liberal. The anonymous commentator has made the classic mistake of bending over backward to excuse the victim. Winehouse isn't dead because she won an award, or because of how her music was received. She's dead because of her own actions and bad judgment.

It's not that I don't want people to get second chances, but there comes a time when everyone, celebrity or not, has to take responsibility for their own actions. There's a statute of limitations on how long we can blame things on our parents, or the public, or the media, and take responsibility for the bad things we do.

Celebrities have more, and better, opportunities to get the help they need. A lot of 27-year old women died that day, for reasons wholly beyond their control. Cancer, car wrecks, mothers with small children. Why such a high proportion of sympathy is expended on a self-destructive celebrity escapes me.

Thomas Pluck said...

No one becomes an addict because they want to, or because of "bad choices." As destructive as hard drugs can be, opiates are classified as "pain killers" when not demonized by our drug war. They are taken in mass quantity by people in pain.
Pain is always subjective. We cannot feel another's pain, despite political platitudes. We mock others' pain. It is not like our pain. Our pain is real. She can't have pain because she's pretty, talented, successful.
So we mock her pain, and the unspoken subtext is that she deserved her death. Shameful. She was no saint, but saints are myths. Even Mother Teresa has her detractors, and when you read their arguments, they are quite convincing.
But we like things in black and white. The closer we look, the finer the shades of gray. But that's difficult.

As someone who's watched addicts both redeem and destroy themselves up close, every one of them has had deep emotional pain. Just as our society sneers and cackles when confronted with the fact that most porn stars and strippers are victims of child abuse, we still cling to the archetype of the fallen woman, who deserves our scorn, our hatred, our scapegoating. Many addicts are as well. Emotional or physical.
It's easy to decry them as weak. Not everyone with pain chooses that path, of course. And those who don't, deserve our pain. But those who do deserve our empathy, not our scorn flung from inside glass houses.

Joan Rivers had this to say about Ms. Winehouse, when her parents said they were building a drug treatment center. Where was it when Amy was alive?

We cling to the myth that pain causes art. That Janis Joplin, Ernest Hemingway, and others needed their pain and their chosen antidotes to create great art. That mocks every artist who does so without. It's not as if Ms. Winehouse didn't exhibit warning signs, when she went from a beautiful young lady to an emaciated husk fit to strut on Karl Lagerfeld's catwalk.

Let's not hope that someone will speak up the next time someone is on the spiral to self-destruction. Let's be the person who does speak up, and offers help. But that takes a lot more effort than sneering at a young woman's corpse.

Jay Stringer said...

There's a danger in confusing the art with the artist.

We wouldn't necessarily like the conclusions people make about us given the things we write about.

Winehouse was someone who needed help, but was in a media goldfish bowl where people are played with rather than helped.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I was out, so I didn't see the comment that was deleted, so I'll only address what's here.

Gerald, on a personal level, I'm probably more like you. But I don't feel that I have a right to impose that standard on others. I mean, some people write strictly to entertain. Does it mean the writing is somehow of less quality? The problem I have with too closely linking message to quality (ie: in the case of criteria for an award) is that people are more likely to determine quality based on what they agree with, and that's not necessarily indicative of quality. I think that's the reason why some films have a hard time getting the votes to win awards. A vote for Brokebac Mountain wasn't a vote for the movie, the writers or the actors; it was an endorsement of homosexuality. Unfortunately, once those waters have been muddied, some won't vote for the movie just because of that, others will vote for it precisely because of that, and it's no longer about the quality of the movie - it's just about the message.

I mean, to be real, a lot of criminal characters are morally reprehensible. I would not want to hang out with Tony Soprano, or Omar Little. Yet I can be fascinated watching them on TV and enjoying the characters. But in reality? Not really my social circle.

Dana, I agree about taking responsibility for your own choices. On the one hand, what good does it do to lay blame over Winehouse's death? On the other, if she isn't responsible, I don't know who is. Her family certainly tried to help her.

Maybe we shouldn't blame the award people but rather everyone who bought Rehab. What good would that do?

Thomas, I think that was a little unfair of Joan Rivers. I mean, I'm going off only what I understand, but my understanding is that they tried diligently to get their daughter help when she was alive. She refused. They could wallow in their grief, but instead have chosen to help others. I'm not sure how I can criticize that, or how anyone can.

Jay, great summary. That's really it, in a nutshell. The media loves people who are messed up. They hate it when celebrities have it all together.

Gerald So said...

Sandra, I know it's a fine line, but I do think books are evaluated in part by how effectively their messages are delivered. There are always some nominated books that seem less concerned with message than others, but I'd argue the bulk of books not nominated probably aren't as concerned with message. if the writer does a good job, you can tell s/he is trying to send a message, and the attempt doesn't detract from entertainment value. I think these efforts should be recognized over someone who doesn't try or fails to make their intent clear.

I think the judging waters are muddied as is, precisely because text cannot be separated from message. As you point out, we dislike when judges vote on message alone, but voting on entertainment alone is the opposite extreme.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Ah, I'll definitely give it to you on how well the message is delivered, but that isn't the same as the message itself. Yes, really splitting hairs there. :)

And I completely agree judging waters are muddy. When I judged for one of the industry awards, I don't think a single book that ranked in the top 5 in any of my categories made the first cut, and books I'd had at or near the bottom did. When it's supposed to be a three-judge panel, that's really quite surprising. That said, there were a lot of other weird things that happened. The entire process was a waste of my time (other than some good books I read as a result) and I think if any one judge, particularly from a three-judge panel, is completely redundant to the process, there's probably something wrong with the process.