I’ll give you anything you want from me,
Anything you want anything you need,
Anything your soul desires.
—Aaliyah, “One in a Million”
News of the sudden, indescribably sad death of Aaliyah Diana Houghton has been everywhere since the plane crash on 25 August. The coverage has taken various forms, mostly sympathetic portraits and appreciations of her talent and career, or accounts of the “facts”—the when and where, the names of the eight others on the Cessna 402, the ongoing investigation into causes, the Virgin Records-sponsored commemorative service, Vibe‘s upcoming memorial issue, and the abrupt increase in sales of her last album, Aaliyah, so that it went on to top the charts.
Some publications have run tabloidy headlines, speculating on the cause of the crash, suggesting that the plane carried too much equipment, that the pilot wasn’t okayed to fly this particular plane, or, in language that could only be dreamed up by the New York Post: “Obese pair eyed in Aaliyah crash.” Others have opted for a less dramatic but really, just as enticing approach: Entertainment Weekly went with its scheduled “Fall TV Preview” cover (featuring a fan-blown Sarah Michelle Gellar) the week after the accident, but included a titillating front-corner banner, “Aaliyah’s Last Hours.” Unsurprisingly, these stories tend to be written by entertainment reporters. Familiar with the industry’s excesses, they have perhaps been willing to overlook or even extol the grandness of the spectacle. News organizations covered the New York City funeral, describing the carriage with white horses, the 22 white doves representing the singer’s age, and those who attended, her family and friends . . . and Mike Tyson.
The constant coverage—as typical as it has become when celebrities die in extraordinary ways—has troubled some observers. Rod Dreher’s opinion piece in the New York Post (which originally ran alongside the paper’s 31 August cover story on the “Funeral to Die For,” a headline which is itself fairly insensitive) has recently been passed along on a few email lists, as exhibit A for the shallowness of the mainstream media. Dreher argues that the “traffic-snarling, horse-drawn cortege for a pop singer most people have never heard of” is “too much,” declaring that Aaliyah was neither a “great” enough artist, nor possessing an exalted enough stature in “society” (like Princess Diana or JFK Jr.), to warrant such attention. The person who was sending round the piece on email included a report on Hot 97 DJ “Star” (Troi Torain), who was suspended for mocking the crash on the radio, by playing sounds of a plane crash with a woman’s screams. The sender labeled both stories with the subject line, “This is horrible!” and invited readers to write the Post and the radio station, to demand apologies.
Surely these incidents are disrespectful, but I’m not sure how much better it is to be counting up the record sales numbers, or gauging the tragedy in terms of lost potential as “product.” Warner Bros., for instance, is now saying that her last movie, Queen of the Damned (for which Aaliyah had yet to complete dialogue looping), was “always on the theatrical release schedule,” contrary to early rumors that the film was “unwatchable” and headed straight to video. However warm or wonderful she was in person, most of those mourning her only know her as an image, and so it makes a certain, not-exactly-palatable sense that most accolades refer to that image. For just one example, Emil Wilbekin, editor-in-chief of Vibe magazine, effused that she could have been “the next Jennifer Lopez, the next Whitney Houston, the next Madonna, the next Janet Jackson.” Yes, I think we get the idea.
Even aside from ostensible efforts to speak to fans who never met their idol, industry people might be expected to render such clumsy praises: as they are so fond of reminding us, the entertainment business is a business, where worth is assessed by numbers and cycles are perpetual. Weeks before Aaliyah’s death, the new album’s promotional campaign was in full swing: at the time of her death, she was still on the August covers of Vibe and Mixmag, and a day or two later she was posed with Sugar Ray’s Mark McGrath for the cover of Teen People‘s “Sexy List” issue (Oct 2001). Perhaps the most moving image of the week was one picked up by tv and newspapers: a Tower Records promotional wall in LA became a makeshift public memorial, on which fans scribbled their condolences and declarations of love, almost as if they meant to take back the commercial site for some sincere expression of pain, loss, and admiration. What most of them “meant,” of course, was to express their private grief in a public way, with no interest in the ceremonies of capitalism.
Consumption, as ever, takes many forms.
The question is, to what end is anyone consuming Aaliyah? Can the process involve something more than saleable excess? Many cultural analysts question the possibility that consumers have real options in what they do: the videos on TRL are all pre-selected and paid for by profit-mongering conglomerates, the difference between Coke and Pepsi is nonexistent, etc. In the case of Aaliyah, check the television “specials” by way of illustration. The mighty Viacom triad of MTV, VH1, and BET worked fast-and-furiously to get their public lamenting on the air within hours of the news. John Norris hosted the serious half-hour bio for MTV and Ananda Lewis hosted a half-hour’s worth of videos. All three channels rehearsed familiar biographical information in attempts to makes sense of her passing, to give her life a shape and a meaning: she lost a Star Search competition as a child; sang professionally with her aunt Gladys Knight; released her first album (Age Ain’t Nothin but a Number) at age 15; and was reportedly married to her mentor/producer R. Kelly that same year (both Aaliyah and Kelly denied this). And of course, the stars made appearances, in perfectly staged and lit “testimonials,” clumsier talk-show formats, or public forums—famous eulogists at the Soul Train Lady of Soul Awards and the MTV Music Video Awards recalled her spirit and her strength.
The basic “tribute” format—honed to a science by now, when every celebrity is a Behind the Music or A&E Biography waiting to happen—combines archived interviews, music videos, and interviews with friends and in which they recalled their Aaliyah. BET Tonight‘s night-after-the-crash remembrances by several friends and collaborators (including Timbaland) may have been the most moving homage, though 106th & Park‘s version, where audience members came on stage to voice their feelings, seemed somehow more earnest, precisely because of hosts AJ and Free’s awkward pauses and stammers. Easily the creepiest show is VH1’s Hard Copy-ish “News-Tribute,” which opened with sensational handheld camera images of the crashed plane and interviews with investigators in the Bahamas.
All this testifying and reporting, as chaotic and bizarre as they can seem in the moment, aim to bring some pretend-order back to the world: if someone is to blame, if there’s an understandable reason for the disaster, then maybe viewers can feel better. But do they feel better? Janelle Brown observes in Salon, “The age of MTV and VH1 has given us public deaths, made-for-TV-movie tragedies that are spun before our very eyes. The making of a pop star wake is almost as big a production as the creation of the star itself: the biographies, the reminiscences, the posthumous releases, the limitless adulation, all a part of the same machine that created the stars in the first place.” Yes, it’s about money. And, as Brown points out, this kind of “wake is formulaic.” Still, one could say that all wakes are formulaic, rituals being a most popular and apparently effective means to deal with death. You might also say, as Brown does, that Aaliyah, the “pop star,” is not Kurt Cobain, “a truly seminal artist.”
And so what? Does this make grieving for her less important? Or any more obviously a function of crass media and marketing techniques? For whom do such measures of “quality” matter? Where do they leave those who invest (money, emotion, time) in Aaliyah? Are these mourners to be dismissed as dupes of the machine and we leave it at that? Or, might we also see that there is a process involved, a way that their consuming is significant, understandable, and somehow worthy?
Consumption, as I say, takes many forms. The folks on the email list who were outraged by the Post writer’s “horrible” comments may be writing a letter to the newspaper as I write this. Or they may be writing to one another. They read about Aaliyah, they exchange information. They interpret her art and her status as “role model” (whatever that means to anyone) as original, important, or provocative, to the extent that it speaks to them, that it moves them. They are finding and defining themselves in the process. And besides, isn’t it just as much standard procedure to dis the “machine” as it is to comply with its “eat-me” dictates? Criticism is product too, absorbed and deployed by the machine, as a sign of genius and innovation (like Cobain or Biggie Smalls), and also as a product to be sold, to be sucked back into the ever-envelope-pushing machine. Aaliyah is part of it, yes. But if her legacy is not a new art form, a large body of work, or even huge sales, she does move people. That much is enough.