“Fame can never make us lie down contentedly on a deathbed.”
— Alexander Pope, 1713
On the Monday following the death of pop music diva Whitney Houston, I was approached by a young woman who inquired whether I had heard that Ms. Houston had died. I replied in the affirmative and, miraculously, somehow managed to refrain from saying something like, “Why are you surprised at the ‘sudden’ death of a person who had abused drugs for decades?” I am glad that I held my sarcasm in check because the woman then said that the news was so upsetting that “she cried all weekend.”
I was stunned into silence and could only nod. At the risk of sounding callous, the demise of Ms. Houston barely rippled the surface of my consciousness. While I admit that I liked a few of the songs that she released in the 1980s and 1990s, for some time Whitney Houston had been little more to me than another pampered, drug-addled celebrity whose career had seen better days. Her marriage to Bobby Brown and their reality television show did nothing to improve her image n my eyes. Of course, none of this matters to the people who loved her before she became a star and, perhaps, in spite of her fame. Their grief is real and deserves more respect than a soundbite on tabloid TV shows.
Perhaps we are too quick to accept the mortal departure of singers, musicians, comedians, actors, and other people who entertain us. Do we expect — indeed, demand — that these individuals burn out in tragically spectacular fashion? There are, of course, those stars who dance close to the line of self-destruction and are fortunate enough not to tumble irrevocably into oblivion. (Yes, Robert Downey, Jr., I am talking about you. And yes, I am eagerly awaiting the Avengers movie later this year.) Redemption is big business, and always has been, especially in America. Martin Luther understood that; and the rest is history.
The loss of Ms. Houston reminds us that prodigious talent often cannot shield those who possess it from the devastation of personal demons or bad choices. To be sure, we mere mortals who cannot sing, act, or do anything else worthy of the blinding light of fame have many of the same burdens. And with any luck, our secrets and slip-ups will never be the lead stories on the evening news or TMZ.