On the legacy of Amy Winehouse, the demons behind ‘Rehab’

A woman in a floral long sleeve top sits in front on a blue wall and blue counter with her arms extended in relaxation.
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Grief is a pivotal, antediluvian source of some of the greatest art ever created — it was the central inspiration for works of art ranging from Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” to Earl Sweatshirt’s Some Rap Songs. Artists possess the arcane ability to channel anger, sadness, desperation, emptiness and hopelessness into expressive works that vibrantly channel these emotions.

In 2011, Amy Winehouse, one of the most influential singers of the 2000s, died at the hands of alcohol poisoning. At only 27 years old, she joined the “27 Club,” a group of musicians — including Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix — who died at the same age.

What connects Winehouse’s death to those of Hendrix and Cobain even more is the commonality of substance abuse among the three. In Winehouse’s case, the signs of her personal demise and unhealthy relationship with drugs and alcohol began showing publicly as early as the 2006 release of her final studio album, Back to Black. The album, recorded in the wake of Winehouse’s on-and-off relationship with Blake Fielder-Civil, contains notably darker, bleaker themes than its 2003 predecessor, Frank.

As Winehouse approached the peak of her popularity as a musician, her personal life was taking a nosedive. Winehouse and Fielder-Civil had a tumultuous relationship laden with adultery and self-harm as well as the substance abuse that left a profound effect on Winehouse throughout the remainder of her life. When, just before the conception of Back to Black, Fielder-Civil left Winehouse, she turned to alcohol to alleviate some of the pain. It was in this heart-torn state that Winehouse created Back to Black.

The most notable of these iconic songs was the album’s intro and lead single, “Rehab.” In the song, Winehouse juxtaposes somber, bluesy lyrics with a fun, upbeat instrumental courtesy of British record producer Mark Ronson. Ronson has produced some of the peppiest songs you’ve ever heard, most notably the collaborative 2014 Bruno Mars megahit “Uptown Funk.” It should be a surprise, then, that he also created the mercurial “Rehab.”

Backed by its spellbinding sound, “Rehab” was so infectious and so powerful that it quickly became not only one of Winehouse’s most successful tracks to date but also a decade-defining song that received the accolades it deserved. At the 50th Grammy Awards in 2008, Winehouse took home the prize for best new artist as well as the song of the year and record of the year awards for “Rehab.” While Winehouse became a cultural phenomenon worldwide, her impending doom became evident as the lyrics of Back to Black manifested into real-life events.

Despite its catchy beat and endless replayability, “Rehab” is harrowing when one takes the context in which Amy wrote it into account:

“They tried to make me go to rehab, but I said, ‘No, no, no’

Yes, I’ve been black, but when I come back, you’ll know, know, know

I ain’t got the time, and if my daddy thinks I’m fine

He’s tried to make me go to rehab, but I won’t go, go, go”

According to the 2015 biopic “Amy,” Winehouse’s father Mitch Winehouse did, in fact, infamously reject the advice of Amy’s record label to send his daughter to rehab in 2007 after her overdose on alcohol, cocaine and crack cocaine that same year. Instead, he sent Amy on a tour of the United States, a move many people consider indicative of his neglect for his daughter in pursuit of money. The singer also got back together with and subsequently married Fielder-Civil after the release of Back to Black, and she delved further into drugs and self-harm, leading to seizures and further complications.

It is frightening to reflect on these lyrics with knowledge of Amy Winehouse’s personal problems. She was evidently wrecked by her toxic relationship with Fielder-Civil, and the way she sings about him throughout the album reflects the detrimental effects of their association on her dwindling mental health.

“The man said ‘Why do you think you here?’

I said ‘I got no idea’

I’m gonna, I’m gonna lose my baby

So I always keep a bottle near”

Despite both parties’ parents’ pressure to get the couple divorced in 2009, Winehouse seemed too far gone in her deterioration to be saved by any of her loved ones or by her record label. After a few attempts at sobriety, Winehouse succumbed to her alcohol addiction in 2011, adding a new, miserably depressing dimension to the already ominous “Rehab.”

Throughout her career, Winehouse was used and abused by her family and record label for profit in a public showcase of greed that ran parallel to the singer’s personal downfall. Although Winehouse’s cause of death was self-induced alcohol poisoning, the slippery slope that led to that conclusion was caused by several actors in her personal life who ought to be blamed for the catastrophe of her loss.

Contact Justin Sidhu at [email protected].