I was almost nine years old when Whitney Houston’s self-titled, debut album was released, and it and she was everything. The Whitney that we were allowed to witness was ultimate perfection- a mature and soulful voice coupled with youth and beauty. Little girls, like me, pretended that we understood and somehow hoped to live out the grown up scenarios that Whitney sang about. Women longed for the slender splendor that was Whitney in physical form. And well, men just lusted, and would be easily satisfied with a woman holding a fraction of her exquisiteness. Whitney was our fantasy. She became a force…Emmys, Grammys, AMA’s, billions of records sold. I don’t have to recount the accolades; there aren’t many walking this earth that are unfamiliar with Whitney, the powerhouse she was.
And then something went terribly wrong. Whitney stopped looking like the angel we’d created, and eventually stopped sounding like one. Her behavior became erratic and outlandish. The tabloids had field-days carrying stories of wild behavior coupled with her cancelling many shows and showing up late (and possibly high) to others; all with a mouth full of outlandish quotables that would surely further damage her career. Remember the Diane Sawyer interview where Whitney told Sawyer that crack was cheap and wack? We got quite the kick out of that, didn’t we? We knew then that Whitney was in trouble, and we laughed.
We saw more of the stumble from grace with the premiere of “Being Bobby Brown”, which aired in 2005. What we’d guessed from news reports and interviews was confirmed in the show- trick cameras notwithstanding. We would chuckle and mock the couple- both seeming to battle demons and addictions but who also seemed, at least through my heart’s lens, to be very much in love and happy with one another. The stumble became a full out fall and as we wished that she would come back to us and hoped that she would again be the Whitney we needed her to be, we kept chuckling.
James Baldwin, in his prophetic commentary on America’s twisted relationship to celebrity via Michael Jackson*, argued “The Michael Jackson cacophony is fascinating in that it is not about Jackson at all. I hope he has the good fortune to snatch his life out of the jaws of carnivorous success…” Baldwin delved much deeper into subjects of sexuality and more there, but his premise largely surrounds the crowning and crucifying we perform on those we claim to be fans of- all under the guise of love.
We never seemed to wonder if the Whitney we so gleefully championed in the beginning was authentic. We didn’t show the proper concern when we saw her unraveling and we judged her when we beheld her as more human and tangible. We joked as she, through self-medication, tried to numb it all.
But all in all, none of the praise or scorn was about Whitney. It was more about us, and the things (and people) we wish to create and admonish. One day soon I hope we learn to allow the same human, imperfections that we hold for ourselves for those we celebrate. Maybe there will be less Donnies and Phyllises and Michaels and Whitneys. We are after all, as the good sister Gwendolyn Brooks writes, “each other’s magnitude and bond.”
*“Freaks and American Ideal of Manhood” Playboy Magazine 1985 (also published in Baldwin’s Collected Essays)