By the time I bothered to log on to Facebook this past Saturday, Whitney Houston had been dead for a few hours. It’s not that I wasn’t paying particularly close attention to the wires on Saturday, it’s just that I was not paying particularly close attention to anything on Saturday. Suffice it to say, when I logged on to “the Book,” the first thing I noticed was a stream of posts about the demise of America’s erstwhile sweetheart.
Some of the status updates regarding Houston tended toward the shamefully cliched: “Crack is whack!” What incisive wits with which so many Facebookers are blessed! Elsewhere, the inappropriately maudlin held sway: “Rest now, Whitney. You were the voice of a generation.” Houston was born in 1963. Her birth year places her at the end of the baby boomer generation. While I won’t argue that Houston could sing magnificently (a fact reflected in her stratospheric record sales), I’m not sure she was the “voice of a generation.” And spare us the crocodile tears, people; you didn’t know her personally.
The rest of those who shared some sentiment regarding Houston’s death offered varying themes of the “cautionary tale.” I will grant that Houston’s apparently self-induced death is a cautionary tale, but let’s not overstate the case. Pretty much every minute of Houston’s last two decades or so served as a cautionary tale. And the warning it carries has nothing to do with the tragedy of addiction, nor does it sound some alarm regarding the perils of fame.
The cautionary tale told by Houston’s death centers on the fact that Americans care far too much about precisely the wrong people. Houston was a gifted singer who frittered away her talent, her image, her career and ultimately her life by behaving like a spoiled child with access to a piggy bank the size of the hogs at the 4-H club’s livestock pavilion. Another supremely talented singer/actor eschewed logic at every turn and ignored even her own advice and snuffed herself out well ahead of schedule. That makes Houston about as remarkable as an abandoned building in Detroit.
To say our culture is celebrity-obsessed is trite. It would also undersell the point. Houston died, and the Nation donned its funeral suit. But she simply added her own name to a list which stretches back across decades. Billie Holliday, Hank Williams, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Keith Moon and John Bonham shuffled off their mortal coils in similar fashion. The President of the United States made a political joke about “Biggie and Tupac” at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Oh, what a chuckler! Two “gangsta-rappers” who spent their entire careers living off angry “music” glorifying shocking violence, drug abuse and almost cartoonishly horrendous behavior died in a manner befitting their lyrics. Tee-hee, Mr. President.
Steven Tyler and Keith Richards have somehow evaded the reaper, but their infamously hard lifestyles are winked at by fans and pundits alike. We know their approaching ends are well-deserved; we even laugh with them about it. But then, so many of us will try to attach ourselves to their deaths in the worst way possible. When we treat these people and their self-destructiveness as somehow acceptable — even noble (Houston is “singing to the angels”?); we set the bar awfully low.
Doubtlessly, some of you will email Bob, demanding he fire me, reprimand me or otherwise punish me for what some might mistake for my dancing on Houston’s grave. To you, I say: “You’re seriously missing the point.” Don’t weep for Houston. Don’t act horrified by her death. Don’t endeavor to turn her early departure for the grave into what Obama Administration Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske described as a “teachable moment.” Do shake your head at the waste of talent. Do blame her for failing herself and her family. And do remember there were, are and will be better people who pass on through tragic and/or heroic circumstances who won’t be the subject of awards-show memorials, fawning print and Web retrospectives or coldhearted columns like this one.
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