Whitney Houston died a little less than one week ago as I write this. She was 48, and apparently did some drugs while in the bathtub. She lost consciousness, slipped under the water, and it was curtains for her.
Now that we've established the subject of discussion, let me establish the point I wish to address. It concerns the dichotomy of women and how they are seen by the public and marketed to the public. When building "stories" around media figures, women are not allowed to be themselves. Men are whatever they are, women need some reason to be whatever they are. The British version of Prime Suspect, the central character was just a very smart woman moving up the ranks. The American version? She got moved to her new position because she had an affair with a supervisor. In comics, men become superheroes because it's the right thing to do. Women? Most of their origin stories are either the woman was raped or she saw a family member get killed (and in the case of the Huntress, it was both). With only a handful of exceptions, women are assumed by the general public to be ineffective unless given good reason.
As a result, women are seen in one of two ways. They are either very very good or very very bad. Look at the old Nancy Kerrigan/Tonya Harding situation. Kerrigan was a classic good girl who skated in virgin white. Harding was a renegade bad girl who skated in bordello red and gold. When Harding launched her plan to eliminate her rival, the lines had already been drawn, with Kerrigan as a feel good story and Harding getting what she deserved, utter failure. Never mind that live mics caught a lot of Kerrigan showing she wasn't as nice as she presented herself. As long as she watched her mouth and just acted like a pretty little princess, the public filled in the blanks with their good girl fantasy.
There are some who probably think I'm mentioning the Kerrigan/Harding debacle because, as clear cut as it may be, that was so long ago. Time have changed. No, they haven't. The only pro basketball I enjoy is the WNBA because they understand the fundamentals of the game and actually play, not try to out-thug each other. General interest in the league is marginal, I'm surprised it's still around. Figure skating and gymnastics, however, set records every time with their pretty little princesses in their boxes. There are women's football leagues that barnstorm around the country as the players work regular jobs. But the Lingerie Football League gets its games on national cable.
As a result, anytime a woman in the news changes from "an event that is happening" to "an opportunity for hyperbole", she falls into either the good girl who must be white knighted or the bad girl who should be shamed.
Which brings us to Whitney Houston.
When the news broke last Saturday, I was on the phone with my mom down in Florida. I mentioned the news crawl on my screen said she had died, and my mom said, "No, she didn't! Quit lying!" Man, you scam your mother into thinking you've been detained by Homeland Security and suddenly she doesn't believe anything you say.
In the minutes after the report, there were glowing articles about how upbeat and optimistic she was. Then reports started surfacing of her looking completely out of it while singing with Prince on stage. (Was she high? If I was going to sing a spiritual hymn with Prince in front of people, I know I'd want to be.) Coverage continued to divide along these lines. People posted online about how "She was the Light of the World." She was a MOR singer, not a revolutionary. Others couldn't wait to badmouth her, "Well, if she didn't get so messed up on drugs!" Now, people are blaming Bobby Brown, her ex-husband, saying that he got her onto drugs and he should feel guilty.
Lost in all this is the fundamental fact that Houston was just a singer. And not a particularly good one at that. Houston got lucky in that legendary producer Clive Davis saw her as a perfect entertainment vessel -- a blank slate. People could look at her and project what they wanted onto her. You want a squeaky-clean girl next door? No problem. Want someone sexy? Here ya go. Houston's stock in trade was her carefully crafted and maintained genericness.
What about her music? What about it? Her first album was typical adult contemporary stuff. I wasn't impressed because, with that crew making the album, anyone could have turned out those hits. She had ballads ("You Give Good Love To Me") and catchy bubblegum pop ("How Will I Know?"). This is not intended as a slam, by the way. Not everything has to be High Art. Just as there is room for genius, there is room for crowdpleasers, and there's no reason to do away with one or the other. You can appreciate artistry without being a snob and you can appreciate general stuff without being a moron. Houston was not in the same league as trailblazers like her godmother Aretha Franklin or Joan Jett. Houston was the kind of performer who was supposed to turn up, make a lot of money, and then go home. Lots of people do it. Lots of people come out of the music business unscathed. The Monkees were a completely pre-fabricated pop group, and they are just fine (Mickey Dolenz is still a card, by the way). It's only a small handful that let it get to them.
Houston's biggest problem was her genericness. Davis had her appeal to the greatest possible audience, resulting in her debut album selling 13 million copies. Her family, her entourage, everybody lived through her. Houston was not her own person, just a device. The R&B shift of the mid-90's proves it.
Music had gone through the New Wave phase and was still shaking off the hangover of the bubblegum pop that Debbie Gibson, Tiffany, and New Kids On The Block served up like meatloaf. With their listeners getting older, everyone had to figure out what to do. Understand, I didn't like New Edition. They were just another kiddie group like Sonic Youth to me. Songs like "Count Me Out" had me changing stations. Bobby Brown left New Edition, supposedly because he wanted to go with a more mature sound. That's just spin. He released at least one album, possibly two, that sounded pretty much like New Edition but with him doing lead vocals instead of Ralph Tresvant. But then, Brown made his landmark "My Prerogative" album and just like that, the game changed. Just like Duran Duran did, New Edition splintered into side projects (Tresvant went with smooth crooning. His song "Sensitivity" was amazing. There was also Bel Biv Devoe, which went frat boy with "Poison" and "Do Me"), then reunited for an album they never would have been able to do before. "Heartbreak" was one of my favorite albums that year, one I almost missed out on because I was still dealing with the old New Edition. "If It Isn't Love" started, and from the opening drum roll to the underlayed harmonies, I was wondering what I was listening to. Then the lyrics started and I thought, "Is this New Edition?" I loved the song and bought their tape that night, driving around listening to it and going, "Where have these guys been?!?"
With everyone suddenly realizing you could go for a mature sound without completely scrapping everything you did before, everyone tried it with various results. Debbie Gibson became Deborah Gibson and made "Anything Is Possible", which had a great title track but nothing else to distinguish it. Davis decided to bump Houston into a more mature orbit, and her third album featured Houston in a sweater and slacks while sitting on a parked motorcycle. It let people know that this juxtaposition wasn't actually feasible.
The album featured attempts to make Houston edgy without taking her away from her core audience of adult contemporary listeners. "I'm Your Baby Tonight" could have been another "How Will I Know?" if the instrumentation was fuller and more friendly-sounding. "My Name Is Not Susan" was a joke. Some were complaining that Houston was ignoring her black roots and pandering to white listeners. No, her producers and handlers were doing that, she was just going along with what they said. She was to make as much money for them as possible, and that was that. Besides, music with a more urban demographic was already pretty solidly staked out by Janet Jackson (once again, generic performer saved from mediocrity by gifted producers, in this case, Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam), En Vogue, and the burgeoning female rap scene pioneered by Salt N Peppa. Black women now had attitude, style, and presence. There was simply no room for someone like Houston. She would have been the equivalent of The Dude That's Too Old For The Club.
Houston soon found herself crowded out of her own turf. Mariah Carrey was ruthlessly determined to climb to the top, and pumped out albums at a steady rate to make that happen. Carrey ushered in a new era for female singers, where songs had to feature one part where she hits the highest note she can and sustain it like an applause sign until your ears start to bleed. These moments have nothing to do with artistry and are just pointless showing off. Houston went into movies and copied this formula with her cover of "I Will Always Love You." But Houston eventually stepped out of the spotlight, leaving it to Carrey.
Even outside her singing, Houston was still exploited. Her husband, Bobby Brown, got a reality TV show and she turned up because, well, they live in the same house, the camera crew couldn't be avoided. (By the way, can we please give Bobby Brown a break? They've been divorced for long enough for, if he was the reason Houston got into drugs, for her to dry out. It's not his fault she apparently overdosed.)
This, pretty much, sums up Houston. Houston was like a real life Johnny Bravo. Not the cartoon character, but the guy Greg Brady on The Brady Bunch was hired to be. She was used and exploited by everyone around her, from family to business partners to friends. Would things have been different if she asserted herself and did her own thing? Sure. But she'd be nowhere near as popular and fans would be wondering why she threw her career away.
Ultimately, Houston's death is nobody's fault. It was an accident, one that happens every day around the world. It's a tragedy because she was used. She wasn't some modern prophet showing the way to a new understanding with her music. And she didn't get what she deserved. She deserved help. Support. People who wanted her to not be exploited. She definitely didn't get what she deserved.
She was just another person who drifted into the wrong life. Quit making her a saint, quit making her an example. Let her and everyone else move on.