I find this post hard to write, and I’m not entirely sure why. I mean, what else could I possibly write about this week but the untimely passing of Whitney Houston? Perhaps it feels too much like everyone else has already had their turn. Surely, you’re tired of seeing her name in your Facebook feed. Perhaps it’s because I was never really a massive fan of hers, though I can certainly appreciate the sheer talent she possessed.
No. Really, I’m having a hard time reporting on the death of Witney Houston because of the way her death has been reported, and mutated, and exploited.
Every single one of us had our tongues in our cheeks in the moment of discovery. My husband broke the news to me; he saw it on the home page of NPR.org. “God, I hope she didn’t OD,” I said. I texted a friend with the news, and their reply was, “What’d she OD on?”. I suppose, though, that we can’t help but think of her struggles alongside her accomplishments. Whitney Houston’s life arc is just too irresistible of a tragedy: the Good Girl Gone Bad. Here was Whitney, a church-going gal with two singing titans in her family – mother Cissy Houston and aunt Dionne Warwick. Beautiful (even Serge Gainsbourg couldn’t resist hitting on her on national television), so poised to be so young, and undeniably gifted with that voice. She was a huge success out of the gate, and worldwide acclaim and an armful of Grammys soon followed. But, so it seems that one can only rise so high before they fall.
Before they fall, and before we actively wish for them to fall. To say it’s a strange celebrity culture these days is an understatement. The mystery is gone from those who catapult into the public eye. How can there be any mystery when one’s every move and mistake can be camera-phoned, TMZed and tweeted ad nauseum? The new “reality stars” created these days seem actively engineered for their ability to fuck up. What do any of the Kardashians really do – and yes, I know they’ve written books and run businesses and whatnot – but what do they do other than consistently make the wrong choices in love? OF COURSE Kim’s fairytale wedding lasted only 72 days. It’s likely that most people who follow Kim Kardashian wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. You are beautiful. We have chosen you. And now, we want you to suffer for it. Welcome to modern fame.
Whitney Houston fell, and fell hard. A misguided, tumultuous marriage to Bobby Brown. Whispers of drug abuse that led to shouts, and ultimately, a teary-eyed confession to Diane Sawyer. (Three words that will haunt Houston’s memory forever: “Crack is wack.”) A comeback album that mainly served to display how much that once-pristine voice had turned to gravel. And the press couldn’t report on her ultimate fall quickly enough. That first report we saw on NPR (on NPR!) noted that both the cause of death and the location were unknown. Huh? Shouldn’t we wait to report on this until it’s completely confirmed?
However, to focus on the fall, as much as it makes for prime tabloid fodder, does a disservice to everything Whitney Houston did right. Turn on your radio. Who do you hear? Kelly Clarkson, Mariah Carey, Christina Aguilera? These are all women who grew up worshiping at Houston’s feet, taking her voice and creating a style from it. No one sang that BIG until Whitney did. For better or worse, Whitney Houston altered the pop landscape forever just by opening her mouth. And when she wasn’t singing, she was busy creating a successful acting career with movies like Waiting To Exhale and The Bodyguard, buoying not only box office receipts but the music biz with mega-selling soundtracks that featured her. (As cool as Dolly is, “I Will Always Love You” belongs to Houston now.) And that comeback album I mentioned earlier, 2009’s I Look To You? She had her best first-week sales ever with that album.
Even celebrating Whitney Houston feels a little strange right now, though. As is typically the case when a musician dies tragically, suddenly everyone who loved them remembers WHY they loved them, and run out to buy their records. Or, you know, they just jump on the bandwagon. (I’m constantly astounded by how much artists are forgotten if they’re not in the very forefront of the pop culture consciousness. But that’s a topic for another rant.) Sony Music, having been through this before with Michael Jackson’s passing in 2009, jacked up the price of Houston’s catalog by 60% in some cases following her death. Savvy or callous? Yes.
There are those out there who will always love Whitney Houston. There are those who are delighting in winning a point in their celebrity death pool right now. And sometimes, those people are the same people. The rise and the fall, the glamour and the grit, the love and the mockery: these contradictions will forever be the most fascinating angle of the tale of Whitney. We can’t help it. We hate because we love because they hate because we love. But we’re paying tribute as much as we’re able. To borrow one of Whitney Houston’s song titles, it’s not right, but it’s okay.