Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Few Words on the Death of Whitney Houston

This must be a slow week for news, because I would have never believed that the death of Whitney Houston would be a four day story. Multiple stars, television commentators, talking heads, and even politicians have weighed in with their opinion of the deceased. Some of them are inflammatory, but most are forgettable. I myself do not understand this rush to canonize a recording artist who made as much news for her flaws than her strengths. But if there is room yet for one more analysis, I will now contribute my own

Whitney Houston meant more to me in a far earlier place in her career than in her later life. A child of the ‘80s, her earliest hits played constantly on the local Top 40 radio station. I recall the songs of that era well. They were a large part of the soundtrack of my childhood, seemingly always playing in the background. I remember that my mother owned a silver Mercury Cougar, which regularly took me and a sister to school and across town. It is that experience, riding along while listening to the radio, that I remember most and for which her material holds the most meaning. In contrast, the apex of her fame, in the early 1990’s, passed for me without much notice.

The year of her height as a star, 1994, I was far more interested in Nirvana and alternative music. If anything, I was openly contemptuous of Houston’s commercial pop. To this day, I have to say that I’m not much of a fan of hers and never really was. I can appreciate her vocal technique and powerful set of lungs much more than her musical output. Like many who live in the limelight, it was inevitable that her best days would someday reach an end. She died well past her prime and at an age where comebacks are far more difficult.   

Ten years later, the name Whitney Houston drifted back into my consciousness, but for a very different reason. I was living in Atlanta now. The couple had purchased a house and had chosen to settle in what had become a city that welcomed black professionals. Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown were constant sources of gossip, for all the wrong reasons. Most of the public disapproval focused on their allegedly poor parenting styles.

Houston’s daughter Bobbi Kristina was said to be treated as an afterthought. According to widely spread rumors, the child, who barely qualified as as teenager, was often sent to the mall by herself with a credit card. The implication of the speculation was that her parents were otherwise too busy with their own issues and problems. Two people who could barely set appropriate boundaries for themselves could not be reliably trusted to do the same with their daughter.

It is inevitable that upon the death of someone famous, we grant the recently deceased sympathy and respect. While people like Bill O’Reilly who’ve made their name for being contrary and offensive might differ, most of us have commemorated this passing as a celebration of a person’s creative talents. Still, we do need to remember Whitney Houston’s life in its proper context. Her struggles with addiction caused a sharp decline in her own star.

An often defensive interview in 2002 with Diane Sawyer showed a troubled soul in a state of denial. Ex-husband Bobby Brown has charted a similar course. His own demons have stood in the way of his own once promising career, making him less famous for an especially thin recording career than for a pattern of erratic, outlandish behavior.

Celebrity provides us any number of cautionary tales. Whitney Houston’s death has been compared to that of other talented musicians, women whose personal problems and substance abuse caused them significant, long lasting problems. In the end, she, Whitney, was the person she harmed the most.

Statistics show that only 13% of the chemically addicted ever reach and then sustain full recovery. Usually, drug and alcohol problems disguise much larger issues. Whether Houston confronted these issues personally is unknown and may forever be so. I am more struck with the tragedy than eager to point fingers.

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