I haven’t heard any good Whitney Houston jokes in the past 24 hours.
I used to love a good Houston jab, even if it was just a refrain of “crack is whack” or “Kiss my ass!” But since the news of her death broke yesterday, quips at Houston’s expense seem inappropriate — never mind that laughing at a drug addict should always be termed as poor form.
Even as I was glued to the schadenfreude fest known as “Being Bobby Brown,” I knew and yet never realized that I was watching someone slowly kill herself. I’m lucky enough to never have experienced drug addiction, even secondhand. I’m a D.A.R.E. graduate and subsequent success story — I even have a stuffed lion to prove it — and I know that drugs are deadly. But I really thought Houston would just be pop and R&B music’s cracked out aunt forever. She’d always be mumbling, peering out from the corner and we’d return to her every few years as she mused incoherently and fumbled to reclaim her glory days. Then, in 30 or 40 years, she’d die of pneumonia or something. I honestly, and very foolishly, thought she’d just be a semi-functioning drug addict for the rest of her long life.
But here I am now reading blog post after article after obituary about the vocal powerhouse’s death at age 48. She may not be in the 27 Club but, musician or not, 48 is still way too young to die. And I’m faced with that classic unsettling grief, the feeling Jane Curtin faced when she found out that her former Not Ready for Prime Time Player John Belushi had died of a drug overdose at age 33.
“It was very sad. But it wasn’t shocking,” Curtin recalled in “Live From New York: An Uncensored History of ‘Saturday Night Live.’”
I’m no hypocrite. I don’t believe in revisionist history, especially when someone dies — which is the case I made when Coach Joe Paterno spun off this mortal coil a few weeks ago. Houston was spectacularly flawed. She was, possibly up until the moment she died, a drug addict. Not only is substance abuse against the law and terrible for your health, Houston used drugs while raising a daughter — behavior I don’t feel out of line classifying as unforgivably irresponsible and downright damaging.
But as Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook and the blogosphere are filled with seemingly sincere tributes to the woman once known as “The Voice,” (before NBC ruined that too) I can’t help but feel torn over it all. As Houston’s fans, it’s not like there was really anything we could do. I mean, her own friends and family couldn’t save the self-destructive diva from her own demons. But I just didn’t think she’d die at age 48.
More than The Voice, Houston was the symbol of black femininity. She, along with En Vogue, shaped my ideal of what a beautiful black woman was in an overwhelmingly white world. She presented as funny, smart, multi-talented and universally adored. She got that across the board acceptance that I, as a young token, so desperately chased.
As a child, I looked at Houston as another version of my mother. In a weird way, I pictured both of them as co-conspirators, guiding me through the maze of self-acceptance. I related to Houston because she wasn’t all those stereotypes about black women that bounced off the walls of the media echo chamber. It’s almost as if I could picture the young boys I knew who vocally didn’t like black women, well, it seemed like they probably had nice things to say — and dream — about Whitney.
All that shattered after “Waiting to Exhale” and “My Love is Your Love.” Houston became the shaking, sweating, incoherent drug addict who squandered the goodwill she’d earned. White America welcomed her in as “one of the good ones,” but in the end she was just like the rest of “them.” That’s where the frustration comes in. We witnessed that overpackaged gloss fade away as The Real Whitney began to show. She’s a wig wearin‘, slang slingin’ junkie — not the Black American Princess innocently eating ice cream on the cover of Seventeen magazine and serenading Kevin Costner.
And as someone who spent her childhood re-enacting Houston’s AT&T ads, someone who needed to believe she herself could be accepted by everyone — including and maybe especially White America — I took extra pleasure in delighting in Houston’s downfall. She let me down. She proved that my dream was simply a fantasy and that crossover and universal acceptance weren’t real tangible aspirations. Irrationally and immaturely, part of me hated her for that — when really I should’ve been mad at the societal infrastructure responsible for those obstacles.
But if I couldn’t make my desire into reality, I sure as hell was going to enjoy the source’s downward spiral and subsequent inferno. I laughed loudest at Houston’s ridiculous interviews with Diane Sawyer and Wendy Williams. I was the one miming her rendition of “Shut Up” with glee. She owed me some entertainment after the letdown that she supposedly caused me because I bet on the wrong horse in the universal acceptance race.
Houston was just an entertainer. She was a singer. She wasn’t a tragic figure like Janis Joplin or even Tupac Shakur. Whitney Houston? Please. Kurt Cobain was going to burn out. Miss Houston would simply fade away.
And that’s what it looked like was happening. She stumbled through comeback attempt after aborted comeback attempt, some weird tabloid story would follow, and we’d all get sad/mad/reflective for a few seconds before changing the channel or clicking a different link.
Every now and then, though, I’d catch “The Bodyguard” and be reminded of just how FAMOUS she was. I was young but I remembered switching between VH1, MTV and BET because all three would be showing the “I Will Always Love You” video at the same time. I remember begging my mother, because it was rated “R,” to take me to see the movie so I could watch Whitney.
On my most recent birthday, my best friend and I had a late-night dance party to “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” complete with lip-synching. I never forgot how talented Houston was — in fact, it was the crucial part of the admiration-betrayal-schadenfreude cycle I’d entered with her — but I’d erased the memory of how much pure joy her music evoked from me. She may have squandered her self-admitted God-given gift, but when her voice was on, it was its own wall of sound and could make even the angriest former fan rejoice.
She’s the Whitney my inner child is mourning. The Whitney who incited envy with every perfect performance; who united and captivated so much of the world with a powerhouse take on a schmaltzy ballad; who let the young me believe music could erase the color barrier. I’ve been mourning that Whitney, though, for over a decade. I can’t get run over by that train anymore.
Instead of pretending that the most recent incarnation of Houston — the aggressive diva with her wig perpetually askew — isn’t worth remembering, now it’s time for me to stop being angry at her and instead begin grieving for her.
Whether she “asked for it” or not, whether we all saw it coming or not, it’s a sad ending for soul-crushing story. It’s another example of the unique ways in which addiction is destructive and complicated. As rebuffed as I may have felt, Houston didn’t owe me or any of her fans — current and former — a thing. And even if she had, she was clearly too lost and spiritually bankrupt to deliver it. That’s the true tragedy.
I was confident that the old Whitney would never return, but I didn’t think the newer one would leave so soon.
I’m not shocked. But it is sad. At least it’s a break from being bitter.