Rehab: Ironic, Unfortunate, or Strangely Apropos? [THINK TANK]

Now that we’ve lost the incredibly talented Amy Winehouse, does it affect our understanding of her biggest hit?

This is an email discussion among the OTI staff that happened a few days after we lost the immensely talented, immensely troubled Amy Winehouse. Does the tragic loss of her life change our interpretation of her biggest hit, “Rehab”?

Belinkie: First of all, sad news about Amy Winehouse. In light of her overdose, I mused that “Rehab” is now the most ironic song in history. But my girlfriend says it is not ironic, since this is exactly how you’d expect she would die. Thoughts?

Fenzel: It is ironic—dramatic irony. The audience knows something the character does not.

Stokes: Does she not know?  There’s nothing in that song that says “I’m a high-functioning addict who will live a long and productive life.”

Fenzel: Reading the lyrics more closely and reading some online interpretations, here are some other ironies.

It is about alcoholism, not drug use. Her record label at one point told her to go to rehab for alcohol, and she said no. So if alcoholism wasn’t really her big problem, and her big problem was, say, heroin use, this song is a bit ironic, because she was right, the booze wasn’t going to kill her, but she was wrong, in that she did in fact need to go to rehab. It’s also dramatic irony for the record company that got the problem wrong.

The line “Yes I’ve been black but when I come back you’ll know, know know” implies that she comes back from her benders and the record label shouldn’t worry. This is dramatic irony, because she isn’t going to come back from this one. Sort of an “I’ll be right back!” in a horror movie.

When she says “I ain’t got the time” it could be seen as verbal irony—because the words end up having a different meaning than she thinks they do.

One debatable irony is in the lines “’Cos there’s nothing, nothing you can’t teach me / That I can’t learn from Mr. Hathaway”—she is talking about Ray Charles and Donny Hathaway—two soul singers that she presumably listens to when she is sad because of the things that drive her to drink. The irony? Donny Hathaway committed suicide, jumping out a hotel window at age 33 due to paranoid schizophrenia.

She probably wasn’t talking about learning to die young and alone, so there’s a dramatic irony there, that she ended up emulating Donny Hathaway in a way she may or may not have expected.

Perich: She also joins the ranks of critically acclaimed singers who died of drug-related causes at the age of 27. Ironic, unfortunate or strangely apropos?

Wrather: I don’t mean to trivialize her death, which is very sad, by treating it like this, but if we’re playing “ironic, unfortunate, or strangely apropos”, I’d say it’s 3 for 3.

For all the reasons Fenzel mentions.


…that a person who makes a global hit song about resisting treatment for substance abuse would die for reasons we’re all assuming have to do with substance abuse. Not even “strangely,” actually. Refusing treatment for a disease rarely makes the disease better.


We’re all making the assumption that the “I” in “Rehab” is (was) meant to refer directly to Amy Winehouse herself. That’s probably the right move, both because that’s what we expect with singer-songwriters these days—when a singer is performing her own song, we don’t really distinguish between a “poetic speaker” and the singer herself.

But what if it weren’t so? What if the “I” in rehab was some kind of character Amy Winehouse invented, either out of whole cloth or in a kind of exaggerated self-dramatization (the way Eminem—I think—creates a persona in his songs where he exaggerates certain aspects of his own personality)?

I think that’s an additional layer of irony.

Fenzel: Yeah, the ironies in the song aren’t really within the work—they take into account the artist as a semi-fictional character. Even if she is talking about Amy Winehouse, the degree to which Amy Winehouse as any of us might claim to “know her” is a real person is debatable.

Wrather: What’s not debatable is that her death is tragic—both in the sense of “very, very sad” and also, it seems, in the sense of “a seemingly inevitable outcome given the people involved.” We won’t know the results of the investigation for a couple months—so it may turn out that a lot of our assumptions are wrong. And I know that by Overthinking a technical question, we’re not losing sight of the more important issue: Amy Winehouse was a major talent who was taken from us far too young.

When pop singers sing in the first person, are they usually singing about themselves—is it an “I” for an “I”? Do certain events in the world change your interpretation of works of art? Let us know in the comments!

10 Comments on “Rehab: Ironic, Unfortunate, or Strangely Apropos? [THINK TANK]”

  1. Christian Walters #

    I struggled with this when I was blogging my own thoughts about Amy’s death ( What I take from the song is that she resisted rehab because shipping her off there made the people around her feel good, but didn’t do anything for Amy herself. It seems obvious to me she knew she had problems (though I doubt she knew what sort of danger she was in), and despaired of finding solutions in a clinic.

    “I don’t ever wanna drink again/I just, ooh, I just need a friend/I’m not gonna spend ten weeks/Have everyone think I’m on the mend”

    I suppose it’s ironic, but I find it mostly irredeemably sad. This woman had access to all those resources, but never found a weapon to combat her demons. Since few people were surprised by her death, it’s even worse since it was obvious to strangers around the world she was in trouble, but no one close to her could give her what she needed.


  2. Leigh #

    The sad truth of rehab is that you have to really be ready for it. Showing up at AA after a long weekend is a recipe for recidivism. Almost all successful recoveries start with a catastrophic rock-bottom moment, where the only remaining options are rehab or suicide. In general, people who die of overdoses do so accidentally, before they reach that terrible moment.


    • cat #

      I agree, and refer you to the rather good post written by Russell Brand in memory of her. The speaker both has no interest in going to rehab because she understands that her problems are underlying emotional ones that drive her addiction, and because she understands that going to rehab will not solve any of them.

      The song seems a bit difficult to interpret. Although the message seems simple enough I can’t help but think it’s one of those personal songs that you need to be inside the writer’s head to truly understand.

      Regardless, Amy was very talented as a singer and a songwriter and the music world has lost a lot in losing her possible future contributions.


      • LSF #

        I think you may be confusing rehab with detox. Detox will not solve any of the underlying emotional issues which drive her addiction, but rehab (in theory) will address them.


        • cat #

          Her picture of rehab seems pretty flat “the man says why do you think you’re here?” and her focus seems to be on staying home to work on her relationships with people which are causing her depression. I’m not making any statements on rehab, just trying to interpret the song.


  3. Meghan #

    I wonder what you guys would make of the story producer Mark Ronson has told about the song’s inception? Ronson and Winehouse were getting to know each other and Winehouse said “They were trying to make me go to rehab, but I said ‘No, no, no,”…singing the last part and laughing it off. Ronson stopped her and said, “That’s a song”. He convinced her–she was reluctant–to write it. According to him, she came in a day or two later to the studio and played it on the acoustic guitar and it originally had a “Johnny Cash” feel. He then pepped it up and arranged it to the pop hit it is now. I just always find it interesting that (a) she didn’t really want to write the song and (b) originally it had a somber feel. You can find an interview on youtube with Ronson’s story if you want sources.


  4. Sakura #

    I have difficulty taking the ‘I’ in songs to mean the singer when so much music is written by other people. I would draw a very small parallel to actors–they inhabit a character, usually speaking lines written by another person. In the context film, we know to separate the character speaking form the actor; I’d argue something similar happens with signers and their stage personas.
    Singer-songwriters blur the line a bit more. Of course, one could also argue that someone doesn’t need to have written the song to make it their own–take covers of songs, for example. Much of the impact of Cash’s version of “Hurt” comes from taking someone else’s words and using them to great advantage.


  5. Genevieve #

    Re: Amy Winehouse…

    To me, I see irony – and perhaps a large dose of redemptive beauty – in the fact that so many, many young stupid kids used the song as sort of a rallying cry (depending on interpretation, without even understanding it correctly) and now, in the wake of her death, they may very well be rethinking their own life choices. She drew her fans in with an emotional connection that was dangerous, but in light of that closeness she may, in her death, have given them the greatest possible gift.

    Re: the “I”s have it…

    I saw a production of “Woody Guthrie’s American Song” this past weekend, and found myself pondering the very same question. He was constantly singing “in character” – embodying the various victims of the tragic stories he told, in order to make the stories more compelling. There is without a doubt a personal relationship that is built by using the first person, regardless of it’s accuracy. Guthrie wrote extensively about the give and take between himself and his audience, how he gave them his music in exchange for using their words. I think this “of the people” mentality is fairly prevalent in the world of folk music, and I have no doubt that it also has a place in other genres, as well.

    However, there’s the perception, at least, that “the blues” in particular is about personal suffering. I can’t help thinking about Lisa Simpson’s attempt, with her “I got this annoying brother” song. In public perception, at least, if you’re a blues singer, you’d better be feeling the suffering you’re relaying.

    In other genres, the line is less clear. Half of a pop or rock musician’s bread & butter, it seems, is in convincing their screaming fans that the passionate love songs they sing come from their heart. It’s an undeniable truth, though, that a huge chunk of rock and pop songs, especially, are either written by other members of the band or written by outside sources entirely. There’s no genuine “I” for Geddy Lee, when nearly all of Rush’s lyrics are written by Neil Peart. Which “I” is valid in the close harmonies of the Beatles – and does are all the songs where John sings lead songs he wrote, or did he sometimes sing Paul’s songs & vice versa?

    The other aspect to consider is the writing process. In a pop song that relies heavily on rhythm & rhyme, even an idea that begins as a highly personal one necessarily morphs as the writer tries to make reality fit an ABBA CDDC structure. Sometimes, the art of the language takes over, and a song is written just for the beauty of how the words go together, with no interest in telling ANY story, personal or otherwise.


  6. Qwil man #

    The distinction between Amy Winehouse the singer and Amy Winehouse the characteris a fascinating one to me, since I knew nothing about her when I first heard Rehab. My initial assumption was that this was a woman writing about the effects of denial on an addict, which was a topic I felt was VERY lacking in popular culture in general. Once I did more research into who she was the song turned from being a song about a woman in denial about her condition to a song written by a woman in denial about her condition. Now, learning what’s been posted earlier about the song’s origins it feels like something a lote more complicated. Perhaps a strange sort of admission through self-deprication?

    I think the bottom line is that we’ll never truly know the intent of the song or how aware the artist may have been of her own future. With any luck however the song can turn into a strange, beautiful warning for people headed down the same path.


  7. Philip Porter #

    This is 9 years old I Googled Amy wine house rehab ironic and found this post, turns out it was most definitely ironic be cause it is claimed by her dad that she actually died of a seizure as a result of alcohol abstenance, so they tried to make her go to rehab and she said no, no, no but then in fact died of not going to rehab and coming off alcohol in a controlled place but instead of going back to alcohol it was in fact the lack of alcohol that killed her, the absolute peak of irony


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