The heartbreak of Whitney Houston’s death does not seem to be primarily a story of drug or alcohol abuse, as it is currently unfolding.
The so-called “teachable moment” about combining booze and drugs, it seems to me, misses the point. The more important question is: Why do people medicate themselves to such an extent? And even more compelling, what role does the public (and its drug dealer, the media) play in these unravelings?
We get a glimpse of the answers in one of the many reels that has been replayed the past several days. It shows Houston and her daughter arriving at an event. Perfunctorily, they stop for the usual red-carpet paparazzi fest. Houston looks uncomfortable but plays her part, smiling into the abyss of flashing lights.
”Hey, Whitney, over here!” “Over here!” “Hey, Whitney!”
It is painful to watch. You can see her struggling to cooperate, but the love they wanted wasn’t there. You can only give what you have. Beneath the halfhearted smile, Houston looked empty, exhausted and drained by the insistence of her audience. Maybe self-medication played a role, but the scene was a metaphor for what surely has been at least part of her internal struggle: the curse of fame.
I’ve watched this particular video clip over and over, thinking, no wonder she would numb herself. It isn’t human, this experience. “Do not adore me,” she must have said to herself. “I’m just a girl from Newark.”
Of course, these weren’t her true fans. These were the parasites that coagulate on the souls of the talented. Her true audience might have said, “Leave her alone. Can’t you see she’s only human?”
The incredible voice that came to Earth with Whitney Houston ceased to be her own once Clive Davis put her on an album cover. Which is not to pity the wildly successful. Who doesn’t want to be discovered, to live the big life, to have a shot at something extraordinary? But the cost is dear, especially for the phenomenally gifted.
This is why the famous congregate. In the company of others similarly blessed and cursed, it’s the only place one can be normal. A good friend told me that Jackie Kennedy would watch people through binoculars because it was the only time she could see them behaving naturally. Otherwise, on the street, they were always reacting to her — staring, pointing, gasping. She wanted to see people as they really are. (We could have told her she wasn’t missing much.)
Most of us can’t imagine what that level of fame is like. And really, who wants it? Apparently, nearly everyone. The popularity of reality shows, and the extent to which some are willing to go in exchange for even fleeting recognition, is something bordering on pathological.
Houston’s fame was of a higher order, based not only on real talent but also on something she gave to her fans. When she sang the word “you,” and pointed to the audience, it was easy to feel she was talking to — you. When she wished us joy and happiness, it was easy to believe. And when above all this she wished us love, well, we fell for it. The love was mutual. That she was also beautiful seems less important. There are lots of beauties out there, but there’s not a single one who can do what she could with a song.
Houston honored her pact with her fans, but fame in our time is different than it was when she first hit the scene. Now there are no limits to expressions of admiration or the invasions that fans, critics and voyeurs permit themselves. Every hand holds a phone, every phone a camera. If you have a power cord, you have a forum. If you are Somebody, you belong to Everybody.
The final verdict on Houston’s death is yet to come. Toxicology reports could take several weeks. But we have a pretty good idea of what killed Whitney Houston. The immediate cause of death might have been drugs she took that day or the cumulative effects over time. But the real cause was a deeper one that first struck her soul.
There is sufficient history of the talented who met similar ends to comfortably conclude that fame is a risk factor for substance abuse. Fans may pay the bills, but they also siphon the spirit of the adored. It isn’t just lonely at the top. It can be deadly.