Howard Jacobson: Singing is the problem, not the drinking

Someone who can’t find anything better to do than admire and copy a rock star is a lost soul already
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The Independent Online

Not a pretty sight, Amy Winehouse being escorted away from her own concert in Belgrade, pissed, perplexed, forgetful, and wondering why she'd been booed off the stage in Serbian when she thought she was in Greece. I know how she felt. It's not easy carting yourself around the world to earn a buck.

I've been constantly on tour since winning the Man Booker Prize in October, and while my drug of choice is aspirin, and I consider I am overdoing it after a glass and a half of rioja, and I don't have a tattoo on my body, unless you count the ink stain on my writing finger, and I don't get 20,000 fans to a performance, and those who do come to hear me are nearer 60 than 16, and I don't forget my lines because I invent them afresh (well, afreshish) each time, and I probably make more references to George Eliot than she does – still and all, we both have husky voices, a gig's a gig, and we are all martyrs in our own way to our art.

Don't mistake sympathy for interest. I am profoundly not interested in Amy Winehouse. If there were a club for people profoundly not interested in Amy Winehouse, I would be its life-president. Ditto Pete Doherty, though if there are degrees of profound non-interest, then I am even more profoundly not interested in Pete Doherty and his little hat than I am in Amy Winehouse.

This is a drug thing, partly. Though drugs are engrossing when you're on them – I could talk to you for hours about my precautionary nightly enteric-coated aspirin, to say nothing of the occasional paracetamol, Anadin or Nurofen I take when my neck is stiff, my back is sore, or my head aches – they are immeasurably tedious, pharmacologically and culturally (especially culturally), to everybody else. If there's an argument for legalising drugs, this is it: maybe then the wasteland which is drug culture can be bulldozed in favour of a nice new estate of bungalows for the unbefuddled. But my profound uninterest in Amy Winehouse and Pete Doherty isn't only ascribable to drugs; it's a singer thing, too.

History will record our times as being stricken by a hysterical plague of singing comparable to the dancing manias which broke out periodically in the ancient world – the Corybantes, for example, who cavorted in various states of undress in honour of the goddess Cybele, or the tarantists who took dancing to erotic extremes in rural Italy in the 15th century on the pretext of having been bitten on the private parts by the tarantula, a spider whose bite has since been proven to be sexually innocuous.

Though no less irrational, dancing manias had more to recommend them than our singing plague as they were essentially participatory activities, providing healthy bodily exercise even though the mind was deranged, whereas watching Amy Winehouse is sedentary – provided, that is, you don't leave the theatre before she does.

That Amy Winehouse is a better, bluesier singer than most, I acknowledge. Yes, she's good. But so what? A singer is still just a singer. The world, reader, is full of them.

I was going to say, "When she remembers her words, she's good", but that's a cheap shot and misses the point entirely. However she misfired in Belgrade – and misfiring in Belgrade could be a smart career move – the whole reason why of Amy Winehouse is that she should be a ruination of a human being. That's what the voice and the music express – sadness, desperation, addiction, loneliness and mess.

There are no clean and cheery blues singers. There aren't that many cheery singers of any kind, if you discount Max Bygraves and George Formby, and their lives give the lie to any impression that all was right in the cellarage. Piaf? Judy Garland? Janis Joplin? Kurt Cobain? All right, Cliff Richard – "We're all going on a summer holiday" – but even he began by holding on to his crotch in public and fans have been wondering what he's been holding on to ever since.

So it's nonsense to complain that Amy Winehouse is somehow letting the side down when she's doing exactly what the side employs her to do. Writing in the Daily Mail the other day, the journalist Jan Moir bewailed the bad effect Amy Winehouse was having on her fans. "What about the moral responsibility to the young girls who admire and copy her?" To which the quick answer is that Amy Winehouse has no moral responsibility whatsoever to those who admire and copy her. You could say that whoever can't find anything better to do than admire and copy a rock star is a lost soul already. "Our tragedy," according to the Mail, "is that so many young people idolise them." No it isn't. The real tragedy is that we idolise anybody.

But if we return to those Corybantes who frolicked in the name of the Phrygian goddess Cybele, or to any of those bacchic women who worshipped Dionysus, dancing lewdly and ripping apart whoever tried to thwart them in their rites, we might have to confess that the impulse to musical abandonment runs deep in human nature.

Dionysus was no role model. He was a god. And the idea of a god is altogether more serious than the idea of a role model, no matter that the god might lead you on a path to self-destruction and a role model is meant to make a sweet, ladylike Mail reader out of you. Rock music exerts the pull it does because the heroes of its culture invite followers to go astray, to junk the virtues of decency and reason and lose themselves in ecstasy.

The trickster god Kokopelli, sacred to the native peoples of the American southwest, is a rock star of an earlier age. In his hunched and twisted shape he bears an extraordinary likeness to Mick Jagger, Amy Winehouse, Johnny Rotten and the Pied Piper of Hamelin rolled into one. He looks drugged to the eyeballs, has a flute forever at his lips, and is sexually inordinate – in short, a thoroughly bad influence.

Would you want your children to choose Kokopelli as a role model? Reader, you would not. But that's not what gods or rock musicians are for. And if you think you can paper over the cracks in your daughters' psychology by getting them to scream in pubescent hysteria over someone who will set a good example, you are not only misleading them, you are fooling yourself.

What your children want is to mess up their lives. You could introduce them to Mario Lanza as an alternative, but don't forget he ate himself to death.