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Grammy for Winehouse's 'Rehab' a mistake?

By William J. Bennett, CNN Contributor
  • William J. Bennett: Amy Winehouse's most famous song mocked her own addiction
  • The Grammy Awards should have thought twice about honoring her, he says
  • A generation ago, young people overdosing was considered a national tragedy, he says
  • It's time to restart a national anti-drug campaign aimed at young people, Bennett says

Editor's note: William J. Bennett is the Washington fellow of the Claremont Institute. He was U.S. secretary of education from 1985 to 1988 and was director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H.W. Bush.

(CNN) -- "They tried to make me go to rehab / I said, 'No, no, no.' " --Amy Winehouse, "Rehab"

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.

The unexplained '27 club'

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.

Unfortunately, there is a blasé attitude about drug abuse generally, though, and it has infected our entire culture today. There was a time when we took the drug issue more seriously in and from our culture, and it was not that long ago. It is now time to usher it back in.

Just over two decades ago, one could not turn on a television set in this country without being aware of the illegal drug problem. When college basketball star Len Bias died from a cocaine overdose in 1986, this country lost an athlete of great fame and promise. But his tragic death did one other thing, too: It set off a national dialogue and campaign about illegal drug use. So huge -- and sad -- was the story of Bias' death that I doubt, even today, any American over the age of 40 would not know who he was.

Shortly after Bias' death, the nation became familiar with one of the most well-known series of public service television ads of all time, with the image of a cracked egg in a frying pan and a voiceover that said: "This is your brain on drugs." And Hollywood actually produced episodes of sitcoms and dramas that took on the issues and destruction involved in illegal drug use. The leading civil rights activist of the time, Jesse Jackson, was giving speeches and leading chants such as, "Down with dope and up with hope!"

Now, when a promising young college student succumbs to drug use and dies, it barely enters the national consciousness. Consider, for example, these students who died from drug overdoses in college within the past decade: a freshman baseball pitcher who had won four state championships in high school before graduating with a 4.2 GPA and who died of a cocaine overdose at the age of 19; a promising journalism and economics major who died of a cocaine and oxycodone overdose at the age of 20; a business major who regularly made the dean's list and died of a heroin overdose at the age of 20.

These are but three young people whose promising lives were cut short and who did not make for a national campaign of awareness, so inured or apathetic have we become to college and youth drug deaths -- and to the danger and death that come from drugs generally. And we should not forget the thousands of kids who don't go to college whose lives are ruined by drugs. We have lost the national sense of tragedy and urge we once had to prevent these recurrences. There are too many unknown Len Biases now.

Perhaps the entertainment, education and sports industries can take this, our latest human tragedy, as a wakeup call and start a national campaign once again. Such a campaign would begin with taking responsibility for what goes on within our schools and professional industries. It should continue onward, with the industries internally policing their achievers who are in trouble and getting them to rehab, not ignoring their lifestyle or saying it's none of their business or rewarding them in blatant disregard of their problems. The truth is, drugs kill -- and that message needs to be communicated over and over again, once again.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of William J. Bennett.