Gawking at the Dead

For years, John Mellencamp has been my pick for the celebrity death pool. Prior heart attack, chain smoking, hard living–the guy’s ready to drop at any second. However, John Mellencamp lives on year after year while other celebrities aren’t so lucky. Michael Jackson. Amy Winehouse. And now, Whitney Houston.

Like most Americans, I listened to a lot of Whitney Houston songs during the 1980s and 1990s. I never saw The Bodyguard, but I belted out plenty of renditions of “I Will Always Love You” in my car. Whitney’s songs are not particularly memorable for their lyrics or unique musical qualities. It’s that voice that hooks you in and reduces even the most ardent pop music haters to a state of awe. Plenty of people have criticized her vocal technique, including the high larynx, the wavering jaw, the tense neck. However, the product, at its peak, was without fault or parallel.

Americans love to watch the life and times of our celebrities. We love it when they fall, and we love it when they pick themselves up again. When I think of a celebrity comeback, the first person who comes to mind for me is Robert Downey, Jr. He was written off as a hopeless junkie, but today he’s sober and more successful than ever before. As much as we like to tear down our celebrities, Americans want those celebrities to rise again to their former heights. Strangely, while we’re busy devouring tales of their trials, we also desperately want them to triumph.

This weekend, I took part in that time-honored tradition of gawking at the dead. I didn’t watch Whitney Houston’s funeral, but I did go back and watch her Oprah interview from 2009 and her Diane Sawyer interview from 2002. I also watched her 1991 national anthem performance from the days when she was at the height of her power. I also watched some of the footage of her last overseas tour in 2011. She had pretty much destroyed that voice by then and hadn’t figured out how to take the graceful path down a few keys that so many older ingenues inevitably have to tread.

My initial reaction as I watched those last concerts was, “How could you?” When you have such an amazing gift, how can you treat it so callously? How can you let it slip away from you? As a musician and music lover, I can forgive her for the drugs and the fall from grace, but I have such a hard time forgiving her for tearing up that voice. Of course, I’m only engaging in a creepy type of voyeurism by thinking, “If I had that voice, then I would never do what she did.” I can never know the reality that she experienced. Whitney Houston’s friends and family buried a person on Saturday. The rest of us buried that voice.

Whitney Houston will not have the comeback that so many people wanted her to experience. She won’t become a wise and seasoned womanly rendition of that virginal pop diva icon of my childhood. The death of the comeback fantasy hurts more for those of us who didn’t know her than the pain of her actual death. We want people like Whitney and Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe to turn things around. We don’t want them to be found dead in a bathroom.

Like others who have died before her, Whitney Houston belongs to the ages. One of our greatest voices has been irreversibly silenced.


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