Once again, a tragic and untimely death has forced me to take a few steps back. I was planning to write up a birthday tribute for Prince today, as well as a special Valentine’s Day story that I was very excited about. I will still do the birthday tribute, though the Valentime’s story may now have to go on the backburner for a bit.
Instead, I’m sitting here thinking about what the loss of yet another musical icon means for my generation. As with the death of Don Cornelius just a week ago, it’s been no coincidence that almost every major news story on Whitney Houston’s passing has somehow, in whatever way big or small, linked her tragic end to that of Michael Jackson. A major story on CNN.com used a well known photo of Michael and Whitney posing together (they have since replaced the photo with a video, although the pic remains on the CNN home page) and the article placed her death in the same league as that of Michael Jackson.
And here is another article linking their deaths:
It’s also not surprising that the outpouring of emotion and sympathy from the MJ fan community has been staggering. This is partly because, after all, Michael and Whitney were friends, so on that level, it’s a loss that feels personal for us (as well as the genuine grief for the loss of a great talent in her own right). Many have also commented on the tragedy of losing, not just another icon, but significantly, yet another BLACK icon (especially coming as it has right on the heels of Don Cornelius’s death last week). There is all of that, which I’m sure I will be able to put into perspective as time goes on. But like many at the moment, I’m simply still grappling to get my hands around what I’m feeling in order to make some sense out of it. I’ve heard many say that it feels like losing Michael all over again. I think it’s simply because her loss has hit many of us in the same emotional place-and for the same reasons.
I won’t lie. I was never a huge fan of Whitney’s, at least not in the way that I am a fan of Michael. Although I can’t say I was exactly following Michael’s every move back in the 80’s, I still loved his music. On the other hand, I can actually recall feeling a bit annoyed at hearing the song ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody” only about fifty trillion times a day on the radio and on MTV! Over the years, as my taste in music matured, I came to appreciate her a lot more. And really, is there anyone who can honestly say they didn’t get goosebumps when she hit that big note in “I Will Always Love You” ?
But as far as following her life or every career move, I simply wasn’t that invested. Like Michael, Prince, and Madonna, she was simply always “there”-someone I took for granted as part of the soundtrack of my youth. And over the years, as the up’s and down’s of her personal life became fodder for the tabloids and the media grist mill (just as it had happened for Michael) I turned a mostly blind eye. And again, just as I had done with Michael, I believed most of it. In any event, there didn’t seem to be much else one could do, except to shake one’s head in pity at what seemed like the sad waste of such a huge talent.
It was only after Michael’s death that I came to realize over 90% of what the media had led me to believe about this man was total BS. That’s been an important lesson to learn, and it helps me to now see things with a much clearer vision. It is especially helpful now that I see the usual BS machine kicking once again into high gear.
When Princess Diana died, many compared her situation to that of a deer chased by the hounds. Michael’s death inevitably drew a lot of the same comparisons. Michael and Diana were both prey to the relentless witch hunt of tabloid media. They were both victims of The Chase, the only difference being that the outcome for one was swift and sudden; the other long, slow, and torturous. In the end, one has to ask which outcome was the most merciful? In her last decade, Whitney Houston had become yet one more celebrity built up by the media, only to be viciously torn down-in fact, “torn down” is too kind. Ripped to shreds is more like it. Just like with Michael, everything about her had become a punchline and a mockery, from her troubled marriage to Bobby Brown, to her drug issues, to her appearance (in fact, her very appearance at Michael’s 30th anniversary concert in 2001 spawned yet another false rumor that she was at death’s door!).
Of course, now all we will hear about for the next few weeks is what a great legend she was and what a tragic loss this is-that is, when they can take five minutes away from speculating on what drugs she was taking (just as they did to Michael and to Amy Winehouse, the media has all but proclaimed this a drug overdose, and the autopsy hasn’t even taken place! Keep in mind, Michael’s death wasn’t officially declared a homicide until after the autopsy results were in; you would think the media would learn their lesson about jumping to conclusions, but no, they never do!). And now, the scenario will play out as a broken record, just as it did with Michael. They will remind us in one breath what a true talent she was, and in the next breath, what a wreck her life had become. But never will you hear them take one ounce of responsibilty for their own role in it! Yes, they will say, “It’s so tragic that we lost Michael and Whitney.” What you won’t ever hear them say is, “We’re so sorry for the hand we played in it.”
I feel sad that so many of the icons of my generation seem to be dying. There is always the inevitable feeling that we have lost a little piece of ourselves. And always the inevitable sense that their mortality reflects our own. In the past year, we’ve lost many of those who were closely connected to Michael, including his best friend Elizabeth Taylor, and it’s always sad that every time I now see a group photo of Michael with other friends and celebrities, there always seems to be at least one more who has now joined him.
But right now I don’t feel sadness so much as impotent anger. It’s not as if Michael and Whitney were elders in their 80’s! THEN we could simply sit back and reflect with melancholy wistfulness and nostalgia over their passing. But no, we are talking two people whose lives ended at 48 and 50! Two people who never even got to experience middle age, or to see their children grow up, or to know the joy of having grandkids.
We’re talking two deaths that didn’t have to be.
I think one reason many of us felt so saddened by Michael’s death was the simple fact that, deep down, we wanted him to come out on top again. We wanted him to have that big comeback; we wanted to see him truly vindicated. I know from my own personal experience that the main reason his death hit me so hard was the overwhelming sadness I felt at knowing he had died with his name still uncleared in the court of public opinion, and because it just seemed he still had so much left to prove to the world! And now, as I’m reading a lot of the reactions to Whitney’s death, I’m seeing a lot of the same sentiments. Just as Michael had died on the verge of launching This Is It, Whitney died on the verge of what seemed a promising comeback in “Sparkles.” What was supposed to have been her big comeback in 2009 proved a bit of a bust. But that hope had always remained, that one day, she would stand up tall and wow us once again.
I know some cynics will argue about personal responsibility, blah blah blah. Yes, Michael and Whitney may bear responsibility for some of the personal choices they made. But that still doesn’t excuse the cruelty of the media grist mill-nor, frankly, our indifference to it. For Michael Jackson’s fans (and many non-fans), his death was a rude wake-up call. It was a wake-up call that the people we love shouldn’t have to “wow us” in order to know that they are loved.
Unfortunately, that lesson has come once again too little, too late.
More Michael and Whitney Moments:
Whitney Presents Michael With a Video Achievement Award, 1989:
Whitney Performs Tribute To Michael At 2001 30th Anniversary Concert:
Whitney Talks About Michael’s Death