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!