The death of Whitney Houston has left me with a question. Like the passing of Michael Jackson before her, Houston’s death produced a jolt of realization in me, as if her passing was further confirmation that something about our world, our collective culture, had changed for the worst. Has our cultural climate become inhospitable to superstars, super talents, and legends?
Before Houston was a punch line on MAD TV (in fairness, I always felt that Debra Wilson’s impersonation of Whitney was transcendent, although I am not sure if I’ll ever be able to watch it the same way again), or a reality TV tart, or the source of a slew of catch-phrases (“Crack is wack,” “Show me the receipts,”) Houston sold over 170 million records worldwide and was the first female artist to have a debut album enter the Billboard charts at number one. She was a superstar, with a voice that was both awe-inspiring and original.
Houston, like all human beings, had insecurities, and unfortunately retreated to substances to ease her pain. By the time Houston was in the crux of her substance abuse problem, we had video sites like YouTube and blogs, two things that would guarantee that every skittish interview, crooked wig, and sweaty upper lip shot would not only never be forgotten, but available 24 hours a day and open to the scrutiny of anonymous strangers.
We all laughed at Houston at some point, myself included. Whitney had become our collective auntie, who we all loved, and we elected to find humor in her addiction instead of worry and shame. Though we hated the turn her life and image had taken, in a way, Whitney as a hype was more accessible, more authentic. Once accused of not being “black enough” in the eighties, those accusations stopped once her issues with drugs became public. Interestingly, Whitney belong to the world at the height of her fame, but once she was firmly entrenched in her battle with drugs, she went from a pop star, to a troubled, R&B (read:black) star, her husband Bobby Brown often erroneously referred to by white members of the press as a “rapper.”
Similarly to Amy Winehouse, I always thought Whitney would pull it together and show all of her detractors, or at the very least, be a perpetual hot mess like Keith Richards. A living hot mess, but a hot mess nevertheless. Though at this point the cause of death has not been confirmed, like Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse and others we’ve lost after public struggles with substances, I can’t help but wonder if something can be done to make popular culture a friendlier place, a place where you are not defined by your human failings, but by your superhuman gifts. If not, in an age where celebrity is more niche and short-lived than ever, and where mediocre is a way of life, what we are witnessing is the gradual death of the Superstar as we know it.
One of my favorite songs by Whitney- Lover for Life