No sooner had Whitney Houston’s body been discovered in a room at the Beverly Hills Hilton Hotel than the debate began: Should she be remembered as the greatest female vocalist ever or as a drug addict?
It was a debate that we had seen play out following the deaths of Michael Jackson and Amy Winehouse, an argument meeting the needs of some to swiftly summarize the life of private figures based on their public personas and well-publicized missteps.
In an age of instant nostalgia, we must immediately canonize or demonize celebrities in a process that often lacks perspective, compassion and context.
Few celebrities seemed better suited for this often mean-spirited exercise than Whitney Houston, a megastar for most of the 1990s who battled publicly with drugs and alcohol, a war that claimed her career and possibly her life.
The more righteous among us coldly posited that Houston’s struggle with substance abuse made her unfit for tribute, and worried about the message sent to young people by publicly paying homage to a woman possibly done in by her own devices.
The more forgiving among us, namely Houston’s fans and apparently everyone at the Grammys, viewed her instead as a tragic figure, a victim of her own celebrity and influence. They chose to remember Houston not as the portrait of drug-addled chaos she was for the past 15 years but for who she was in her prime — a once-in-a-generation star with unmatched talent and unparalleled charisma.
The truth, as it often does, resides somewhere in between.
But our need to tidily condense the mind-boggling complexities of one’s life into blanket statements and generalities, both good and bad, speaks not to our love for spirited debate but to our desire to feel something about the death of another human being.
We chastise Whitney Houston’s lifestyle to feel detached from the undeniable tragedy of her passing and the promise she squandered.
We grieve for her because we feel connected to the iconic music she created and remember that she was, above all else, someone’s mother, daughter and friend.
This week, a playlist honoring eight artists who died young.
May Whitney Houston and other artists find the peace in death they struggled to find in life.
• Glenn Miller, “Pennsylvania 6-5000” — The famous jazz trombonist disappeared over the English Channel in December 1944, but not before making some of the most lasting music of the big band era.
• Buddy Holly, “Not Fade Away” — Famously died in a plane crash in February 1959. Holly is one of the most influential artists of the 20th century.
• Elliott Smith, “Somebody That I Used to Know” — Dead of an apparent suicide in October 2003. Smith wrote some of my favorite songs ever, including this great breakup song.
• Amy Winehouse, “Tears Dry On Their Own” — Winehouse’s brief career was just brilliant enough to sadden the music world when she died in July of alcohol poisoning.
• Jeff Buckley, “Last Goodbye” — Buckley was robbed of the chance to see how massively popular his music became following his drowning in May 1997 in Memphis, Tenn.
• Nirvana, “Lithium” — Kurt Cobain’s suicide in April 1994 was a reminder of the sometimes high price of fame and rock superstardom.
• Joy Division, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” — Tough to listen to Division without thinking about the tortured genius of frontman and songwriter Ian Curtis, who committed suicide in May 1980.
• The Notorious B.I.G., “Juicy” — Before being gunned down in March 1997, The Notorious B.I.G. produced some of the most poignant and important records in the history of rap music.
To access Lowcountry Current's Spotify playlists, click on the link below: