It took me a bit of a spell to mull this post over, as there were so many thoughts to sift through, particularly since the myriad of things have been reported in the press since Whitney Houston’s death and funeral and there has been much commentary regarding fame, fan-dom, and drug-abuse.
Houston, perhaps one of the most iconic singers in the history of popular music, died just as suddenly as she began to chart her comeback and make the rounds to promote her new (and what would come to be her last) film project; the remake of 1976’s Sparkle. Social media allows for breaking news to happen at a pace akin to the speed of light, so when the first Tweet reached my timeline, I dismissed it as another celebrity death hoax. Unfortunately this would not be the case, as reports by AP and noted celebrity news blogs soon followed.
What also followed was a barrage of unfounded speculation and innuendo; which ran the gamut from angry (but ill-informed) folks blaming ex-husband, Bobby Brown– (whose troubled life and marriage to Whitney was documented in his now infamous reality show, Being Bobby Brown)– to media pundits coolly(and unfairly) reducing Whitney to nothing more than a drug-addled mess. In fact Los Angeles radio hosts John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou referred to Houston as a “crack hoe” and were later suspended for the nasty barb, as was a youth baseball couch in Chicago, for calling Houston a “dumb, stupid nigger” during a Facebook rant.
Per usual, Twitter’s purveyors of quasi-cynicism and shock tweets decided to weigh-in, perhaps just for the sake of being contrary, belittling fans who (still reeling from the news) publicly tried to make sense of her sudden death and shared anecdotes about their favorite Whitney Houston moments.
Whitney’s funeral at New Jersey’s New Hope Baptist church (live-streamed across various news and media platforms) offered some personal anecdotes recounted by family and close friends who, while acknowledging the singer’s struggles with drugs, reminded the public of the indelible mark she left on music. And while Twitter’s quasi-contrarians – (I say quasi; because while they themselves will enthusiastically offer opinions on popular culture, TV, and sporting events, seem to only serve to play a disingenuous game of Devil’s Advocate or seek validation for deviating from specific topical norms, when the discussion doesn’t placate their interests) – called the commentary “idolatry”, Whitney’s death definitely provided plenty of fodder for discussion: particularly how polarizing celebrity can be (even in the wake of tragedy) and how mainstream media covers news about troubled celebrities of color versus their White counter-parts. As if being vilified as a mere crack-hoe and dumb, stupid nigger weren’t vile enough, in perhaps one of the most despicable acts of tabloid bottom-feeding, the National Enquirer published an unauthorized picture of Whitney lying in her coffin on its cover; which I’ve gone out of my way to avoid seeing and refuse to Google or to link to. Publisher Mary Beth Wright defended the crass piece of photojournalism— crass even by National Enquirer’s standards— with a convoluted statement: “I thought it was beautiful”.
Very rarely to the deaths of troubled, drug-addicted White celebrities garner as much vitriol, despite the public’s and media’s resignation over their inevitable fate. They may comment: “I’m not surprised but it was still tragic. S/he was so talented. I was hoping s/he’d get better.”
Predominantly White media outlets have reduced Whitney’s death into a circus-spectacle and now seem to be aiming their guns at her fragile and seemingly troubled daughter, Bobbi-Kristina, who Whitney doted on. And their audience has responded in-kind, with racially insensitive commentary.
While I agree that everyday people fall victim to substance abuse issues and even death, and that today’s cult-of-personality is guilty of deifying celebrity and pop-culture figures; this is an instance where Whitney most certainly deserved to have the courtesy of some semblance of dignity extended to her in death, as any of our loved ones (who aren’t famous) do after they’ve passed… this especially includes not having her corpse plastered on the front of a tabloid. Expressing empathy over an iconic figure’s death and for her family, while acknowledging her problems with substance abuse isn’t worship. Additionally, voicing dismay over tired, racist tropes about Black people (celebrities included) who succumb to substance and drug abuse, isn’t an act of denial about Whitney’s problems. The bigger issue should be the public’s inability to engage in productive discourse about drugs (even when it involves a person of color), without it devolving into nasty race-baiting and racial stereotypes. Why?