Sunday, February 12, 2012

Whitney Houston: broken butterfly

This was a jolting shock, even though I had never been a particularly big fan. It was one of those, "no, no" moments.

It was sickening news, though there had been plenty of - what? Warning? How can we call it "warning" when someone's life has been spinning out of control for years?

The first time I ever heard of Whitney Houston, even before the movie The Bodyguard catapulted her to fame, my sister, never one to be positive about anything, said, "Oh, she's just a second-string Tina Turner."

Whenever my sister said things like "oh, she's just" ("just" being her favorite diminishing term, purposely busting down anything I loved), I had to sit up and pay attention. It meant something extraordinary was about to happen. And then that incredible song began to appear on the radio, all the time, everywhere.

It had the simplest lyric of all: I will always love you. It was not the words,
but the way she sang them, releasing those pure arcs of sound and sustaining them beyond our capacity to believe what we were hearing.
Back then she was slim and deerlike, wide-eyed, and though I don't know if she was really innocent or not, she looked like she must have been.

She was charismatic, her voice soared almost supernaturally, and she seemed to have everything. a person could possibly want. Then reality caught up with her: the awful, devouring reality of "making it" that seems to eat so many stars alive.

I just can't take it this time, I'm angry and I feel like crying. It's just too much. On the eve of the Grammys, when she was likely to take part as a presenter dressed in a gorgeous designer gown, she lay dead in a hotel room. Efforts to resuscitate her were in vain: this time it really was too late.

One wonders if it was a  Michael Jackson scenario, or maybe Heath Ledger, where people did not call 9-1-1 right away because they were afraid of scandal. I am convinced this is what happened to those other two: shame, denial and a sense of "let's keep this hushed up" may have cost them their lives.

And what about all the people who partied hard with her, knowing she was vulnerable and unable to take even one drink or snort or shot without falling into the abyss? Her many trips to rehab left her in a fragile state, and though she often claimed, sometimes with a touch of belligerance, that of course she was sober and anyone who thought she wasn't was a liar, soon we'd hear that she was in rehab again.

Reports from earlier this week revealed that Houston was particularly out of control, flying on God-knows-what before her spectacular final crash. I don't know why someone (anyone!) didn't take her in hand and put her in the hospital to detoxify. It sickens me, because when I looked up her Wikipedia entry I was dizzy and overwhelmed at her accomplishments on every level. I won't even attempt to list them here, but they were formidable.

In yesterday's post I tried to make some sense of the phenomenon of huge stars plummeting in flames: just what goes on here? Addiction can happen anywhere, but it's often the product of early damage. This can lead the survivor into damaging situations later in life (Bobby Brown!), fuelling the need for oblivion. Having unlimited money is a factor, but the most destitute addicts always find a way to feed the dragon which consumes them.

Does lofty fame convince some stars that they are immune to the horrendous long-term damage of drugs and alcohol? Why did her "friends" party with her, which made about as much sense as helping her play Russian roulette? Are these really friends, or just parasites, sucking at a star's vital force and even trying to steal it for themselves?

I know I'm not saying anything very original, but this one just sickens me and I can't keep silent. We watched Houston's self-destruction in slow motion over many years, and the media feasted on it. We wanted her to win, and yet we didn't. We wanted proof that fame, which so many people lust after, isn't really worth a damn because it swallows people whole. Which it so often does.

But does this stop people from lusting after it and climbing on other people's backs to get it?

The Grammys tonight will be shadowed by this horrendous event, and if it were up to me I'd cancel the whole thing. But the industry juggernaut must move forward, like the great pyramid stone that nearly crushes the old woman to death in that Cecil B. deMille epic. "She's just an old woman. Not important enough to stop a moving stone."

I sometimes hate the dynamics of the human condition, the games we're forced into if we are to survive. The smiling through our anguish, pretending we're all right when inside is nothing but a howling wilderness and a brokenness which is beyond repair. At the Grammys, people will say comforting things like "we know she's with us tonight," because they don't know what else to say. People are afraid to give in to grief, afraid it will demolish them. And sometimes it does.

I don't know why Heath Ledger had to die that way, or Amy Winehouse, or even Michael Jackson with his bizarre addiction to hospital anasthesia. I won't mention all the others because I can't get started or I won't be able to stop. They all missed decades of life that might have been rich and fulfilling, or maybe even painful and desperate, but, at least - life.

A line from the 16th-century poet Alexander Pope springs to mind: "Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?" It's a question, not a statement, and it hangs there, implying crushed beauty and arrested flight. But who? Is it you over there, press agent - or you, entertainment reporter (just doing his job, after all, perhaps a job he loves), or you, the much-demonized paparazzo? Or you, the fans, clamouring for her as she mounts the stage to that exhilarating roar?

But the same fans are eager to eat her alive, and it will happen now, with rotten jokes about her dying the night before the Grammys. I don't leave myself out of this equation because I  too often see huge stars as commodities, and am quick to hurl criticisms, knowing they can't hear me.

There are no second or third or twentieth chances for Whitney Houston now because she has been broken for good. This is disturbing, but there will inevitably be a certain amount of "what can you expect" sentiment along with the praise tonight. I don't know why she didn't make it. I don't know why Billie Holliday didn't make it. Winehouse. Garland. Let's not add more to the list.

We're left with that incredible song from The Bodyguard, the one that made people say, "Hey, who's that?" They had never heard anything quite like that before, and I hope they paid attention, because they never will again.