Days of Wine and Roses

There’s no denying that there’s a relationship between performers and audience, on and off-stage. Performers give us enjoyment, insight, entertainment, enlightenment. We give them financial rewards, adulation, the pleasures of someone who will listen. But what do they owe us and what is our responsibility to them? Is this just quid pro quo or do we owe each other more?

Let us take, for example, British singer Amy Winehouse. In many ways, the last year has been very good for her: best-selling album, hit singles, five Grammys. But she’s become just as well-known for drinking and drug-taking (here and here are just two examples). So do we link these two sides together – the talented musician and the troubled woman – or keep them apart? By supporting the singer, am I enabling the addict?

“Back to Black”
Amy Winehouse

She’s hardly the first musician with what are now politely called “issues”. In the 1950’s, it was an open secret that many talented Jazz musicians abused drugs and alcohol. Some of their followers thought these substances contributed to their art. Nobody seemed to shun them for their failings. The late 1960s and early ’70s saw a parade of rock musicians who burned brightly. Some died and some survived. Again, there were those who thought these personal habits contributed to their music.

But we live with a parade of headlines and video of star-powered train wrecks and celebrity “acting out” on a weekly basis. And it’s natural to feel one’s patience snap at some point (say, when a performer runs offstage to vomit). So, let’s go straight to the bottom line: Does Amy Winehouse deserve to be “rewarded” with awards, critical acclaim, the adoration of audiences, and the financial rewards of music sales and concert tours? Are we complicit in her behavior?

The balancing act is difficult. If someone we know acts in a way that’s harmful – to himself/herself or others – we can argue that we have a responsibility to not support that individual. Otherwise, we have to bear some of the responsibility for their actions. In the case of the addict, the dividing line between gifted and tormented is fuzzy – note this anecdote where Winehouse tells her producer Mark Ronson about the incident that led to the song “Rehab”. He quickly goes from being troubled to noticing that Winehouse has come up with a great idea for a song.

But I can just as easily argue the opposite point of view: It’s a dangerous spiral when you don’t separate art from artist. You can end up assessing everything from music to movies to fashion based on whether you feel that you can support the creator behind those works. Must everything pass an acid test of social responsibility?

Sometimes these choices seem like no-brainers, but it’s a sliding scale from black/white to shades of grey. When Ike Turner died year, the headline in the L.A. Times read: “Rock pioneer was known for abusing wife Tina Turner.” He spent years in bitterness because that sort of headline summed up his long music career. Gary Glitter was charged as a sex offender and his career fell apart. But these are serious crimes against others; it’s easy to agree that O.J. Simpson shouldn’t get our support. Lindsay Lohan is ridiculed for her rehab efforts; Robert Downey Jr. seemed to be supported for his multiple efforts. Amy Winehouse caroused, stumbled and fell. She’s done some time in rehab and we’ll see if she changes her ways.

Suppose you find that the guy behind your favorite pop culture product is a racist or once killed a kid while driving drunk. How can you in good conscience support such a person? Does this mean we have to investigate the background of everybody? And what do we do when we figure out who the bad guys are?

In the end, it seems that we each have to make that decision for ourselves. Does the behavior rise to a sufficient level that I should consider withholding my entertainment dollars? Or do I decide that an actor might be a nutjob, but I love his movies? It seems like a fairly tricky calculation to me and I am loath to offer easy answers. Sometimes, pop culture asks us to pay a price.