I was in the car riding with friends from Whole Foods on Route One when I first heard the news. While my friend drove down the dark road, I skimmed her iPhone in search of a song to play through the speakers. And suddenly a blurb from the New York Times appeared, reading, blatantly: “Whitney Houston, singer, dies at age 48.” Instinctually, I declared, with surprise and remorse, Houston’s death to my friends. “What, really?” “Oh, wow.” “How’d it happen, does it say?”
The news of her premature death immediately made headlines. Early footage depicted fans congregating around the funeral home that day. The following day at the Grammys, Jennifer Hudson performed “I Will Always Love You” as a tribute to the late star; the gala attracted nearly forty million views, the second highest in its history. Houston received a four-hour, televised funeral, termed a “home going” by her family, attended by numerous famous celebrities—Stevie Wonder, Kevin Costner, and Oprah Winfrey, among others—and secured by a two-block wide barricade of police. The Sunday after she was interred in Fairview Cemetery in Westfield, New Jersey, police closed the gravesite to visitors amid congestion and confusion; news reports suggest that more than 100 vehicles competed for the opportunity to visit the singer’s resting place. And on the streets of her hometown, depictions abounded of fans waving posters, singing spontaneously, and grieving for the news camera. One fan said the experience was “like losing family.”
Despite the waves of compassion and sorrow, none of Houston’s fans call Cissy Houston, the famous gospel-singing mother, to express their condolences. And none offer a hug to the grieving Bobbi Kristina Brown, the weeping child of the late singer. The fans, even in this time, remain distant admirers, and Houston, to them, a specter, barely less accessible in death than in life. Houston was, and is, a stranger to her fans. If the situation was switched, and one of her admirers had died from a prescription drug overdose, Houston would not have known and would not have cared.
The day Whitney Houston died, 7200 people in America died as well. Worldwide, she was one of 150,000 people to die that day. We can imagine the numerous, sometimes gruesome, ways these lives ended. Shooting matches in inner cities, painful diseases, slips in the bathroom, torture in POW camps. Some died in cars, some died underwater, some died peacefully in their sleep and at least one, though likely many others, took too much doctor-prescribed medication. Amid this sea of demise, why does Houston stand out? It must be Houston’s fame that attracts the attention of the media, and inspires Americans to feel sorrow for a stranger.
Houston’s fame revolved around her remarkable singing ability, but her impressive voice cannot adequately explain this wave of grief. While vocals were the obvious center of her career, Houston wasn’t just talented. In a country of this size, there is no shortage of admirable voices (thousands must have innate vocal abilities matching Houston’s) and fierce competition to succeed in entertainment. Long represented by record labels Arista and RCA, Houston’s music streamed frequently on television outlets and radio stations. While today radio is decaying, it was, for decades, the most important channel of audio distribution in the music industry. In her heyday, Houston was attractive; her status as a sex icon is debatable, but surely her good looks, emphasized with makeup, flattering shots and the right clothing, only made her general image more valuable, socially and financially.
Houston’s music has been packaged, polished and disseminated throughout the world by record companies, multinational corporations which control trends at least much as they respond to them. Behind each catchy, sentimental ballad was a team of producers, writers, and vocal coaches who helped Houston to produce the cleanest product possible, and quickly receded into the backdrop to allow Houston to receive the accolades. The music videos were, of course, designed, choreographed, and edited by professionals. And the vast marketing departments tailored Houston’s image to suit, and influence, the tastes of a generation. As a final touch, the Houston product was repackaged and redistributed internationally, as part of the enduring process of globalization and cultural homogenization.
Perhaps this sentimental attachment is just another commercial rouse. We’ve been acculturated to adore strangers—we call them stars—who produce morally decadent music focused primarily on two things: money and sex. Like obedient sheep, we’re trained to heed the sounds of distant popular icons; we finance our adoration in the form of consumption which fattens the pockets of our corporate overlords. Music, like art, is supposed to be an expression of genuine emotion, but theirs is a social sedative. The music studio is a laboratory, the songwriters mad scientists who exploit technology, money and beguiling chord structures to contrive products that hook listeners, suppress rational judgment and maximize profits. The criticism is clear and piercing: popular music is simple, superficial, and dangerous.
Older, dedicated football fans will perhaps recall the final moments of Super Bowl XXV in 1991, when the last-second field goal attempt by Scott Norwood secured victory for the Giants. But any lingering relevance of the game persists because of the opening ceremony, during which Houston performed the national anthem. It was perhaps the zenith of her career and a clear indication of her status as a laudable popular symbol twenty-one years before her death. Viewing the footage now, I quickly realized how impressive her vocal abilities were, but more relevant was the palpable patriotic atmosphere amidst the anxiety of the Persian Gulf War. Whether her performance should “earn” her our praise is irrelevant—a question fitting of popular music rankings but distracting for our purposes; the reaction of the crowd, and the precise tailoring of the video, show the tremendous, emotional effect shared pop symbols can have. In that communal moment, when fans wave their flags, trumpets underscore Houston’s majestic vocals, and viewers observe from home, do the invisible machinations of the music industry matter?
The industry may have fed an image of Houston, as they continue to do with new entertainers, but their acceptance by the public alludes to a strong desire for inspirational idols. Despite the tremendous distance in space and circumstance between Houston and her fans, it is clear that admirers feel a genuine connection to her. How many young aspiring performers, particularly young black girls, view her as hero, and seek to emulate her trajectory (real or imagined) from the humble Baptist church to superstardom. As a black pop icon, she’s an enduring sign of mainstream acceptance and integration, encapsulated by the privilege of singing the national anthem for a war weary country during a de facto national holiday. She was accused of racial betrayal during the 80s, when she neglected her gospel roots for a lucrative, mainstream sound; now she is best remembered, and applauded, for these same songs. Her image was first one of confident, regal femininity, later, one of recovery from domestic abuse and redemption (we thought) from drug addiction. Her songs, at last, are fun and emotional. I listened to her catchiest tune, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” not infrequently, and not ironically, well before her death.
How do we privately engage with the passing of a famous stranger such as Houston? Singly quietly to themselves, or boisterously with each other, sentimental adults are quick to accompany her vocals as her old songs circulate on the radio. These tunes summon moods and memories associated with specific circumstances, or general periods, when the music was popular. But Houston’s death has relevance even for younger people. The day she died, I recall hearing spontaneous bursts of “I Wanna Dance with Somebody “ on dance floors along Prospect Street. Facebook posts, along with a sudden growth of views on her YouTube videos, betray a sudden interest in her work. Despite the generational gap, some famous deaths, and the confusing feeling of obligatory sadness—creepiness, we usually call it—cannot be ignored.
In my own room in Spelman, upon my return from Whole Foods, we quickly uncovered Houston’s most popular tunes, part of the rotation of pop music antiques we had heard routinely in car trips as children. As we cycled through her familiar singles, we fumbled with the lyrics, danced ironically and chuckled at the high notes. Humor became the filter for our discomfort, our feeling of simultaneous disinterest and melancholy. Perhaps not her death, but death more generally, seized our attention and prompted our comedic reverence.
We focus not just as Houston’s life, but her death. “She was only 48,” fans frequently lament upon hearing the sad news. The status of her daughter—“her poor daughter”—and the future of her career—“she was about to star in a new movie”—are also recurring topics. But for every discussion that chronicles Houston’s premature life, another veers off into considerations of hardship more generally. Conversations volley from Houston specifically to the abstract, and back, unearthing anxieties that have always existed: the ravages of fame, the danger of drugs, and the pain of abusive relationships. The stark juxtaposition between her polished regal image in the 80s, and her erratic behavior observed in the 00s, encourages the use of a narrative to describe her life. Houston’s story is the archetypal fall from grace; stardom exploited her naïveté and corroded her elegance. Never mind the details, the numerous individuals, both famous and unfamiliar, that were part of her life, the changing conditions of her addiction, its peaks and troughs, the invisible role of chance, her connections in the music industry, or her own, unknown, inner thoughts. Narratives are neat; they exclude particulars which create unnecessary complications.
For close friends and family members, the death of a loved one is a personal tragedy. But the curious relationship between entertainers and their fans creates a different type of disaster: a light national tragedy. Like any story, the life of an idol lends itself to a variety of readings, each tailored to the emotional needs and considerations of the individual fan. The formation of a legacy, and the flood of compassion is communal and organic, although facilitated by the media. And the result, for millions of Americans, is, hopefully, a moment’s pause—a short, silent, personal reflection on mortality: Houston’s and their own.