Cultural Caviar

In the Wake of Whitney’s Wake

February 25, 2012

Multiple Pages
In the Wake of Whitney’s Wake

Admittedly it is déclassé to kick someone when they’re down and even more so when they’re dead. Yet with recent hagiographies of Whitney Houston by well-intended but totally immoderate friends and family, it appears the time has come.

We highly esteemed Miss Houston’s talent. Her voice used to be singularly moving, even if she squandered it over the years. The quandary comes when (for all intents) such one-dimensional personages leave the stage. What should be a dignified (and mercy’s sake, private) affair is often marred by the most outrageous profligacy of public eulogizing. Thus it is for those well-wishers, present tense and future, to which this entry and its counsel is sincerely dedicated.

When your relative dies doped-up on a hospital gurney at home or slides into the hotel bathtub with a champagne glass, do not—we repeat, do not—immediately run to the public at large shouting, “We don’t know it was the drugs!” Yes, we do. You may not, but we all do. It absolutely was the drugs. Even if it wasn’t the drugs this particular time, it was definitely the drugs in aggregate.

Don’t make with the doe eyes and faux-physician routine pretending someone can do hard drugs for years (or decades), abruptly quit, and everything is suddenly as it once was. Only a fool thinks doing hard drugs day in and day out, hours at a time, for months on end doesn’t play havoc with your innards.

“Whitney had a fabulous voice. It doesn’t mean she was anything more than a great singer.”

Fans, Americans especially, are a remarkably forgiving species. No one will rub your nose in what has apparently occurred. If you don’t mention it, chances are no one else will, either. Does anyone ever talk about Eddie Murphy picking up a transvestite or Hugh Grant picking up what looked like one? These stars neither defended nor denied their acts, so we all go see Eddie’s next Nutty Professor installment. But the minute you insist the obvious wasn’t the culprit, people begin throwing things at the television set. And writing articles.

Do not tell us the newly deceased celebrity was on the verge of a stellar comeback. If they were, they wouldn’t be lying in the morgue due to advanced pin-cushionage. Yes, Michael had a concert series planned. “Planned” does not a comeback make. We’ll give him a “came close,” but that’s as good as he gets.

As for Whitney Houston and Amy Winehouse, the nearest these addiction specialists were to comebacks was Season II of Hell to the No (otherwise known as Whitney Is a Raging Cokehead, though sometimes referenced as Being Bobby Brown) and…well, it says quite a bit when Amy was so busy making track marks she couldn’t pull herself together enough to run a down-and-out-of-control reality-TV train wreck off its rails.

To hear amateur Rhodes Scholars tell it, Whitney Houston integrated primetime. Odd, in that we recall the most pointed barbs during her life were for singing “too white.” (One wonders if being physically abused, becoming addicted to crack, and being a single mother makes her sufficiently “black.”)

Michael was supposedly one of MTV’s first mainstay nonwhite acts. So what? It may come as quite a shock to people under thirty, but there were actual real-life black people on television long before anyone thought of MTV. Nielsen ratings in those days were the kind television executives today would don a Klan robe to see light up the sweeps-week returns.

Nat King Cole had his own program preceding MTV’s existence by more than twenty years. Soul Train is the second-longest-running syndicated program in history; America’s Black Forum is the third. It’s safe to say there were a few black folk on television prior to Michael’s backward strut. Robbing those others of their achievements doesn’t transform someone into MLK post-mortem.

Do not tell us how you care about the children/the family/the significant other, then proceed toward immediately pimping out images of the deceased and filing massive lawsuits on their behalf. It is clear all you care about is the money. Fair enough. Money is important. But sanctimonious testimonials as to how you are the only selfless thing standing between a cruel, cruel world trying to pilfer royalties of the special Limited-Edition Chia Michael Jackson and the poor innocent dears already richer than Midas are enough to make anyone retch before reaching across the red carpet to slap some sense into your fool head.

Speaking of which, cheers to a little personal responsibility in the matter. Michael’s problems didn’t begin with Conrad Murray. Amy’s ex-husband might have gotten her hooked, but it’s pretty clear she enjoyed staying there. And as to Whitney, the aforementioned villain Bobby Brown was actually performing in concert on the night she was sliding beneath the suds.

And please curb the excessive praise. In the week since Whitney’s passing her supposed friends told us she was the greatest singer of her generation (agreed); she was the greatest singer of the century (doubtful); and she was the greatest singer who ever lived (suggesting her advocates smoke as much crack as Whit ever did). Even at her four-hour (YES, it was actually FOUR HOURS) funeral actor Kevin Costner eulogized that once she arrived in the Great Beyond the Lord Almighty Himself would be doubtful even He could create such a magnificent creature. (There are many inappropriate places for blasphemy, but delivering it at someone’s funeral tops the list.) 

Finally, and this cannot be stressed enough, do not confuse great ability with being a great person. Listening to such conflation during recent celebrity deaths has been sickening. We’re first to admit one or two of Michael’s songs still have us tapping our toes. He was also guilty of some highly questionable behavior. Amy led a tragic life, but tragedy is only one ingredient of martyrdom. Whitney had a fabulous voice. It doesn’t mean she was anything more than a great singer. Even Mahatma Gandhi wasn’t as great as he’s cracked up to be.

Amid the multitude of interviews following her demise was a conversation with the principal of Whitney E. Houston Academy. It used to be that public buildings were never named after living people, mainly because the honorees might turn out to be addicts or deviants, and no one wants their children attending Hophead Jr. High. They appear proud of it now.

So please, family members and friends of recently deceased celebrities, resist the temptation to fabricate a divine myth out of whole cloth. Too much of it lying around these days was threadbare from the start. Appreciate the genuine accomplishments, pass over the unseemliness, and simply recognize sometimes the old ways are best. Foremost among these is practicing discretion while in the wake of a wake.

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