Whitney Houston and the Wages of Fame

Sadly, only the most optimistic or naive observers did not see this coming. Indeed, it is fair, if harsh, to wonder how it took so long. I make it a habit to avoid any and all “reality TV” shows, but it did not demand sustained viewing of Houston and then-husband Bobby Brown’s public spectacle to see that all was far from well in her world.

On the other hand, who felt comfortable making a prediction? For every Amy Winehouse there is a Keith Richards. For every Jimi Hendrix there is an Eddie Van Halen. Some of our rock stars have the combination of good genes, dumb luck, and, perhaps, destiny keeping them from snuffing themselves out.

It’s a shame: so much talent, so much unrealized potential. Same old song and dance, really. Except for two things.

One, it seems fair to suggest that Houston more than fulfilled any hopes and expectations. She was on the top of her game — and the world — for a good, long ride, and there is no question her music will be listened to for a very long time. By any reasonable measure, she did what she was put here to do.

Two, it’s difficult to get too worked up with pity and disappointment for someone who had everything and could not hold it together. There is no judgment in that view (indeed, I have a tremendous amount of sympathy for anyone, rich and famous or not, who struggles and ultimately loses a drawn-out battle with demons they can’t control), but it is difficult in some ways to behold our very American tendency to instantly beatify our celebrities when they die, particularly when they die prematurely and as a result of their own appetite for destruction. It seems to me this default mechanism overlooks and, ironically, helps perpetuate the same dynamic that helps people nullify themselves.

Listen: I understand, and get it, that Houston’s dying on the eve of this year’s Grammy Awards (I’ll resist the urge to comment on what an exorbitant, appalling festival of ostentation and egotism that ceremony is, and save it for another time) made the occasion tailor-made for overblown, egocentric mini-tributes. In fact, the way we signal our solidarity with bumper stickers, sweet nothings on national TV, or pink ribbons does much to signify how we simultaneously take the path of least resistance and make any unfortunate situation as much about ourselves as possible. It does not require a cynic to see a bunch of millionaires in designer dresses and suits nodding their heads in somber acknowledgment of yet another tragedy and find the routine more than a little hollow. How many of these preening pop stars put their considerable money where their bleach-toothed mouths are and get involved? How many of them are helping fund drug treatment clinics? How many are doing public service announcements? How many are on board to help educate the fans who buy the tickets? More likely, they are hustling to get their own reality TV shows.

Look: it’s on every individual to make whatever choices they should make and be accountable for the good or ill that results. Still, it speaks volumes to behold Hollywood–an insular community looking to traffic and exploit any opportunity to say how much they care–partake in this scripted, soulless ritual. And of course our mainstream media is no less culpable. In fact, the media is too often a prurient posse of hucksters and hypocrites, at once breathlessly reporting each misadventure and then, once the damage is done, sugar-coating it and sanitizing it. I’m certainly not suggesting it would have been fair or appropriate to lead each Houston obituary with a detailed exegesis of her substance-addled spiral. I do maintain that we should all be disgusted with this familiar formula, and don’t kid yourself: once the proverbial dust settles (and the accolades and feel-good statements and montages have been aired), there will be no shortage of dirt seeping out. Every lurid anecdote and embarrassing setback will be cataloged, all in the name of an insatiable public’s right to know. In this we are all culpable.

There is no easy answer. The only thing that is certain is that what we’re doing now is not working. And I’m not talking about the regular, and regrettable body count of pop stars dying by their own hand (intentional or not). I’m talking about the uncountable numbers of human beings (in America and around the world) who, for a variety of all the usual reasons, fall prey to forces and vices that take hold of their lives. Yes, it is a very sad day when a beautiful and gifted songbird gets silenced. And if the wage of super-stardom does not need to be tragic, the cause and effect of our hero–and money–worshiping society makes it more likely. It is a sad day every day when the people we don’t know and won’t produce cry-on-demand tributes for slip away, unnoticed. No one will eulogize them because few people know who they are.