When a big-time celebrity dies an untimely death, there’s an immediate rush in the media to apply lessons. This is especially true of those whose unravelling became the stuff of spectacle and speculation; consequently, this is especially true of Whitney Houston, whose funeral took place yesterday in Newark, N.J.
I don’t mean to set myself apart from this phenomenon; I did my share of writing about Michael Jackson’s death and what it said about matters of race and child abuse. And I suppose I’m about to hold forth a bit about Houston’s demise, if largely through the observations of others.
So far, the death of the sublimely talented and very beautiful Whitney Houston has an inspired a rash of “What really killed Whitney?” pieces. Was it the prescription drugs, the alcohol, the peculiar pressures of worldwide fame?
Was it being a black “cross-over” artist, and the self-denial demanded of those so destined? Was it her own purported denial of her sexual orientation, rumors about which dogged Houston for years? Or the tension of living in the profane world of pop music after being raised in the church, the daughter of a famous gospel singer?
Or maybe it was all of the above.
But, truth be told, these questions are less about Whitney Houston than those who pose them, and those who read the articles in which they’re posed, eager for a clue to who we Americans are as a people, and the cross-currents of our often maddening and self-contradictory society. This is true whether it’s the New York Times‘ Frank Bruni today jumping off from the Houston story to write a column about alcohol abuse, or Out magazine resurrecting a year 2000 interview with Houston in which she addressed — rather graphically — the gay rumors.
Of the work I’ve read in the “Why did Whitney die?” genre, the most gripping I’ve seen — and one that speaks to all of these questions is a long essay by Max S. Gordon at The New Civil Rights Movement.
From the first, I always felt Houston was ill-served by those who chose her material for her. She possessed an amazing vocal instrument, and the pieces chosen for her to sing were pop anthems to which she applied astounding feats of vocal pyrotechnics. But more than that, Houston was a true artist: she could make you feel the most cliched lyrics as if they were somehow profound. Imagine what she could have done with material that actually was profound.
From Gordon’s essay:
This amazing black voice was consistently singing bullsh*t; and not just lovely trifles that became classics like her cousin Dionne [Warwick’s], but songs that felt willfully repressive; there was a story that was definitely not going to be told through her. I knew that Whitney wasn’t solely responsible for this, but it was her voice in the end on the record, so they had to have her consent. My question is, did she even know what was missing from her music, and did she care?
Whitney’s voice was a revelation, but we never got her blues song, her protest. I argue that Whitney was an artist in the end, but I believe that she was an artist not because of the music industry, but despite it.