The Cost of Stardom

Next to Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston is the most important 80s icon to die so far. Much of the commentary about her has been superficial and/or sentimental crap—but in recent days, some thoughtful pieces have been written that take Whitney’s death as an opportunity to talk about broader, deeper questions.

One piece that’s been widely shared on Facebook and Twitter this week is “For Whitney: ‘Sleep little darlin’ do not cry . . .,” a blog entry at Open Salon, written by a former Chicago journalist. This one talks about the “bubble” in which celebrities live—the artificially constructed reality that comes with stardom, and which makes it impossible to see life as it really is. The extent of Whitney’s bubble, I can’t claim to know. Surely somebody who claims that if there are no receipts for her crack purchases she isn’t a crack user, as she said to Diane Sawyer, isn’t understanding her world clearly.

There are millions of people walking around who wish they could be stars, but the cost of stardom is higher than they can possibly imagine. Stardom is approval by other people: validation of one’s work, and even one’s existence, by other people. But other people can be fickle, and their agendas differ from your own. Sooner or later, odds are that they’re going to move on from you. And if having their approval, or their attention, is the only way you know you matter, you’re in trouble. Some stars—such as James “JY” Young of Styx and Roger Daltrey of the Who, mentioned in the Open Salon piece—have figured out how to integrate stardom with real life in a healthy way. But many others go around in circles trying to rebuild the bubble or reignite the rush. You can probably find people willing to give you the attention you crave—in Whitney’s case, the producers of the Being Bobby Brown reality show come to mind—but if  it turns out to be more for their purposes than for yours, will it be enough to feed the need you feel? And where will you be when they’ve moved on from you?

Twenty or so years ago, I remember reading somewhere, about either Whitney or Mariah Carey, that she was wasting her magnificent instrument on the blandest schlock imaginable. That’s one of the points made about Whitney by Max S. Gordon at The New Civil Rights Movement website last week in “Whitney: Sister Can’t Fly on One Wing,”

There is no discovery in business; business is, in fact, the antithesis of discovery: if you go to McDonald’s in Dallas, Texas, or London, England, the fries are going to taste the same.  Someone was encouraging Whitney Houston to be a product, a brand. This amazing black voice was consistently singing bullshit; and not just lovely trifles that became classics like her cousin Dionne, but songs that felt willfully repressive; there was a story that was definitely not going to be told through her. I knew that Whitney wasn’t solely responsible for this, but it was her voice in the end on the record, so they had to have her consent. My question is, did she even know what was missing from her music, and did she care?

The piece is about more than that, but that’s the part that drew me in. The author goes on to examine Whitney Houston’s career through the lenses of race and addiction. I’m not sure I agree with all of it, or that as a white guy who’s never been addicted to anything other than caffeine, that I’m even capable of understanding all of it, but it’s a worthwhile read anyhow.

Also worth a look: a piece by Debris Slide contributor Joe Levy in the Hollywood Reporter about “I Will Always Love You.” Joe calls it “one of the greatest moments in American pop,” even as he catalogs its faults, and says it is “a triumph of vocal ability that presents itself as human indomitability.” As such, it’s a good example of what made Whitney Houston’s career both great and frustrating.

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