Frontier Psychiatrist

Whitney Houston: Who Cares?

Posted on: February 23, 2012

[Singer-songwriter Alex Nackman discusses the death of Whitney Houston]

Let’s cut the bullshit for just a second. The death of Whitney Houston is irrelevant to anyone outside of her immediate family and close friends. Obviously 24-hour news cycles are now clamoring for all the details and all the rumors of what led to her death and are just foaming at the mouth that some new “news” has finally been released for them to harp on, over analyze, speculate on, dramatize, and journalistically masturbate to, but in reality, this type of thing was so inevitable, and honestly, so incredibly unimportant in the scheme of real meaningful news and issues.

I am not saying that the death of Whitney Houston does not matter in any way. It matters to her friends, to her support team, and to her family, especially a daughter, who now will live without a mother. But, let’s just back up for a second and admit that for the rest of us, who gives a shit? Whitney Houston was not a philanthropist, not a humanitarian, not a hero of war or struggle or a cause greater than herself, not a diplomat, not a fighter, and not a leader of any kind. Furthermore, she had not even been a relevant musician, touring act, singer, producer, or songwriter in the current day music business. I personally cannot even remember hearing her name mentioned in the news in a single capacity beyond the tidbits of information that leaked of her post-marital problems with Bobby Brown and her own struggles with substance abuse. That was truly the extent of her publicity over the past decade. I’m not sure if Whitney or her publicist should be blamed for that.

So, what on earth are we really talking and lamenting about here? Every single day there is a soldier killed in Afghanistan, an activist killed in Damascus, children killed by their psychotic father in a house explosion outside of Seattle, WA, a family killed in an apartment fire in Brooklyn, NY. Those events are the real tragedies. Those events are examples of the real struggles, both common and exceptional, in this world on which we should be focusing. The death of Whitney Houston is sad, but it is not important in a worldly sense or even a national sense. And, if they would admit it, I would argue that the vast majority of Whitney Houston’s fans probably did not even have the name “Whitney Houston” in their minds or on their iPods at all prior to hearing about her death (a true example of “out of sight, out of mind”). Yet, as soon as her death came over the AP wire, the clamoring of “news breaks” and tearful “this just in” segments flowed as if a leader and a caregiver for humanity had finally met his or her match, and was in route towards martyrdom. Yet, no martyr  (or even a social hero) was born from this event.

Whitney Houston was a talented, yet troubled, entertainer with constant and incessant issues that she could not overcome. The world had not heard a single piece of news relevant to her music in years. Like Amy Winehouse, losing talented and troubled people is sad, but should not be treated as a monumental unexpected world loss worthy of a “Piers Morgan Special Edition” (though to be fair to CNN, Piers has trouble filling an hour with content on an average night with his tepid, silly, and vacuous interviews, so this probably felt like an open lay-up).

This all may sound insanely insensitive, but back away from Whitney for a moment and think about all this and think about what truly matters. We should save the melodrama and street shrines for those who give something bigger than themselves or at the absolute very least, appear to be remotely relevant in respect to their craft and what they do as people (musicians should make new music or tour, actors should release new movies, writers should release new novels). Must we continually fall to our knees for those whose lives are caught in a Groundhog Day cliché? All too often we focus on those individuals who continually and inevitably get into the same sordid situations in Hollywood hotel rooms.

Now, I know it sounds difficult and may feel unnatural, but those who look outside themselves and dare to do better, dare to change their outlook on the world and on the challenges they face, and dare to unite for the good (no matter the size of the cause) are the individuals for which our tears are truly worth shedding.

Alex Nackman is a songwriter, producer, composer, and artist who lives in Brooklyn. He’s written music for HBO, NBC, The CW, among others in the U.S. and UK. He’s been an MTV Buzzworthy Artist and toured alongside Buddy Guy, Norah Jones, and The Roots. This post originally appeared on his tumblr.

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3 Responses to "Whitney Houston: Who Cares?"

This is interesting, and certainly valid. The self-destruction of an arguably obsolete pop-culture icon probably ranks lower on the richter scale of tragedy than the deaths of those two journalists in Syria yesterday. That being said, there are a few reasons why I don’t entirely agree with Alex’s argument. Firstly, though artists may not be risking their lives for humanity, I do think they provide a service that is deeply essential to civilization. They beautify our world to begin with, but on a deeper level I have always believed that it is in the arts where we question, break down, and rebuild our understanding of who we are and how we regard each other. Of course we also do that in government, academia, jurisprudence, etc., but I believe the arts have an extremely important role to play in how we live. Revolutions have been incited in the names of musicians, and lyrics have been the rallying cry of the oppressed. Ok, fair enough, Whitney Houston’s songs didn’t start any revolutions, but I think it’s probably undeniable that her beautiful voice and soulful interpretations touched a great many, giving comfort in sadness, and a sound to joy. I myself remember spending at least some significant hours of my childhood reflecting on the lyrics of The Greatest Love of All, which of course she didn’t write, but without her voice, I never would have heard them. I also think there’s something about our relationship with popular artists that gives an illusion of personal contact. It is of course false, but I wonder if there is something to be gained in the connections forged at the resulting moments of public mourning. Perhaps not. Perhaps it’s only a distraction from the things that really matter, but on the other hand, were we paying closer attention to those things before Whitney Houston died and did her death make us any less engaged than we already were with the ‘real’ for lack of a better word? I wonder if in these moments where we’re all having the same conversation, there isn’t actually greater potential for us to reflect collectively in useful ways. Public ritual has always been an important part of civilization, and we don’t have a whole lot of it anymore, especially regarding life changes, so maybe it’s not such a bad thing that we stop to encounter death collectively. Lastly, I would just add that as a culture, we are voracious consumers of pop culture, so much so that our celebrities live under the tremendous pressure of constant media attention. We place our hopes and dreams in them, often to their detriment and our own. Do they enter into this willingly? Generally yes. Are there people worse off than our poor stars? Yes of course. This outsized attention may be unseemly and it may even be undeserved, but that being said, it does seem only fair that if we refuse to give them any space in their lives, perhaps we owe them at least a little heroic attention in their deaths.

RESPONSE FROM ALEX NACKMAN

David,
Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Certainly there is no argument from me that artists and performers deserve our attention, love, respect, and honoring. I too remember songs from The Bodyguard and have always known Whitney to be talented. No doubt there. I also have many musical and artistic idols who I personally would not like to lose. My point with Whitney is more that she was not in our minds and in our hearts because of her music up until she died. She had become more known for her drug abuse and silly reality show with Bobby Brown than her voice in recent years and showed no signs of doing anything truly and currently meaningful with respect to her music. From a fan perspective, it seemed like we suddenly showed compassion for someone who hadn’t been a part of us for quite awhile– sort of like the estranged father who wants to be part of his child’s life after not talking to him for 10 years. It just didn’t feel genuine to me. It’s like we were all Whitney “front-runners:” no where to be found while she was here on this earth and then suddenly packing the church acting like she was our closest friend when she’s gone.

Believe me, when Paul McCartney dies, I will certainly feel a loss and that’s because he’s so present in my life as a fan and present in the business that made him famous.

Alex

[…] Mates broke into “Palomino”, the lead single off Mountaintops. Mashing the song’s ending with Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know”, the band and crowd alike were sent reeling in memory of the late pop […]

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