Thursday, February 23, 2012

Do They Find Their Way Home?

You've heard all about it by now.

A statuesque, almost unfathomable beauty. A voice that spanned three octaves, and hit notes with a power and delicacy that’d rub souls bright. Cultivated in the church, it lent its grace to the likes of Jermaine Jackson and Chaka Khan. “I’m Every Woman” was a song Whitney Houston’d later make her own.

Her success was swift and immense. She’d done some notable early recordings, but hit it big in 1983 when she signed a $250 000 deal with Clive Davis at Arista Records. Two years under his tutelage prepped her for a 1985 eponymous debut. It would sell 12 million copies, produce 4 number one singles and stay 78 weeks on the charts. Rolling Stone named it `Best Album of 1986’. Her second LP followed two years later and debuted at No. 1.  She'd win six Grammys, over her career, tour the world and sell about 170 million units. In 1999, the RIAA named her 'Female R & B Artist of the Century'. She’d star in movies: ‘The Bodyguard’ opposite Kevin Costner before returning `home’ with ‘Waiting to Exhale’ and ‘The Preacher’s Wife’.


Death is always difficult. But some passings just don’t sit well at all.  

Michael was supposed to regain his form and show everyone that despite, the weirdness and the rumors, he still had that magic. Weren't we to see Heavy D morph into the old Jamaican man he always really was? And watch him chant and skank into his 60s? Don Cornelius’ was to go out cool. In his sleep, maybe. Not sick, vengeful and alone. Put those insults next to the monumental loss that was Etta James’ passing; and any merciful person’d hope the reaper’s scythe’d be by now too blunt to cut down anyone else.

Then Whitney.    

Mainstream news outlets lit up.  Facebook and Twitter blew up. Tribute poems materialized. 'Saving all my Love', 'I Wanna Dance with Somebody' and 'Where do Broken Hearts Go' choked news feeds.

What struck me were the pictures of Whitney and Michael Jackson together. It fit. They both were geniuses who had too much too fast and were gone too soon. Both died unexpectedly on the cusp of a comeback. Both battled `personal demons’, and did so in a business that suckles demons.  

The tributes rolled in. People said the thoughtful things, but soon the cruel remarks surfaced; and became focal points. It's just people's nature, i guess. And part of the business.


It goes beyond the surreality of fellow artists glad-handing each other at the Clive Davis party while Whitney’s remains were in that Beverly Hilton hotel room. Or maybe that’s spot on. 

Entertainment’s the business of dream exploitation. It does that to the fans of course, but also to those who work in it. It is a place where one better be quickly disillusioned: expect the same people charged with developing you – loving you - to use you up and leave you for dead.

It's a pretty tense existence. And, the physical toll of a performing life is under-appreciated. Long hours and binge diets strain body’s recuperative systems. Performing before thousands require these typically nervous individuals to surf surges of adrenalin, wiping out when the crowds fall silent. Their work can mean conjuring emotion, self- `triggering’ (pulling a psycho-emotional nose hair) or otherwise keeping oneself in a charged yet vulnerable space. It's a disposition that advantages unsentimental views of feelings: performers regard emotional experience as farmer might a fresh litter of piglets. 

That explains the drugs. Partly. Substances do fun things to dopamine and serotonin. Weed and coke can make feelings feel real again and offer the illusion of emotional control. Prescription drugs can numb you. Or make you sleep on schedule. They let you function.

A chemically mediated reality is `normal' in the entertainment world. But, you might’ve noticed that it is one of those `normal things' that fucks with black people disproportionately. 

Roll call: James Brown, Dionne Warwick. Mary J., DMX, DMC, Jimi Hendrix, Brenda Fassie, David Ruffin, Gregory Isaacs, Bobby Brown, Dennis Brown, Monica, ODB, Nina Simone, Gil-Scot, Billy Holiday, Chaka Khan, Marvin Gaye, Esther Phillips. Many major black musicians had careers marred, or ended, by their own brain chemistry experiments. Underscoring this oddity is research. Compared to other ethnic groups black people are significantly less likely to do `hard drugs’. 

So what’s up?


There’s a lot more at stake identity-wise. And, the psycho-emotional landscape is more treacherous. Black artists subject themselves to a `schizophrenic’ vacillation fueled by aversion to ‘blackness’; the need to use black cultural skills to win mainstream (i.e., white) acceptance and a fear of mainstream rejection. And it isn’t just crazy talk. Racism, and racial pressures, have measureable physiological and psychological effects ones exacerbated by the 'normal' stresses entertainers face daily. Further, those these effects are each compounded by the political history of the entertainment industry. 

Black virtuosity in the performing arts is very much an outgrowth of the industry’s Minstrel show roots. Black people once mocked for the amusement of whites, used those very channels as in-roads into American culture, becoming 'merchants of cool'. It follows that entertainment is one of the few spaces where black excellence is demanded. Moreover, it is a place where `blackness’ is made. And, as Tavis Smiley’s, Viola Davis’ and Octavia Spencer’s triply disturbing exchange illustrated, Black artists still squirm under the race representation burden, one made more slippery by the pressure to ‘break through’ to a quietly hostile, fickle `mainstream' audience; having to rely upon white svengalis, writers and deal brokers to do so. 

Michael and Whitney were both ‘post-civil rights’ artists credited with ‘breaking down the barriers’ (to white audiences) with (color) blinding black genius. Indeed, those dynamics, those pressures, shaped their lives in rather stark ways.

We watched a black kid from Gary Indiana undergo a ‘race-lift’. He'd eventually  'father' white-skinned children: the product of a white surrogate mother and sperm donor. Yet, the King of Pop had a ‘black card’ maintained in part by ‘ethnocentric’ streaks. Bold, nutty, self-serving/sabotaging ones. 

In a business where having a surname ending in ‘–stein’, ‘-berg’ or ‘–feld’ is practically seed money, it was more than ballsy for MJ to scream ‘kill me, kike me’ on record. But, he’d later hire the Nation of Islam as security. At the height of the Afro-centricity debates, the ‘Remember the Time’ video depicted the Kamau as blacker than Central Booking. Jacko made one-time collaborator Paul McCartney feel like a industry-pimped soul artists when Mike snatched up the Beatles catalogue, denying Sir Paul ownership of music he'd created. He raised his flag over the `King of Rock ‘n Roll’s' castle by marrying Lisa Marie Presley. Not long after that, the littlest of the black Mike trinity scared even Al Sharpton when he went off script to call music industry mogul Tommy Matolla a deivilish racist. And of Black economics? MJ hired black cooks, producers, drivers and er…doctors.

He was loved - protectively and crazily - by black people, but his fascination with whiteness (and little kids) had him on a perennial 'black probation', which, oddly made him even `blacker'. 

At that same time, Whitney’s church-burnished pipes, fondness of Nelson Mandela and a marriage to the poster boy for ‘love and trouble’ one Mr. Bobby Brown didn’t deflect accusations of ‘racial inauthenticity’. I suppose there were some other important differences. Unlike the King of Pop, the Queen was infamously stiff-backed. Couldn’t cut a rug if she had scissors. 


Early in the adult careers, Mike played up the weirdo-mystique of genius, Whitney was all ‘good girl affection’ or ‘defensive hauteur’ as one movie reviewer put it.  And while the crotch-grabbing black Peter Pan made music that spanned the spectrum, Whitney’s aesthetic was managed in a way that that’d accommodate the subtle racism of adaptation inequality embedded in post-Civil Rights ‘acceptance’ narratives. Once rich, her music became bland and soul-less. And like Janet and Mariah, she made sure to keep a safe distance from Hip-Hop. Black fans, ‘respectable’ women too, questioned her selective use of her soul/gospel roots. So did the niggerati. In his seminal 1989 essay ‘The New Black Aesthetic’ Troy Ellis wrote,  'Lionel Ritchie's 'Dancing on the Ceiling' and Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance with Somebody" are so lifeless precisely because they have applied Porcelana fade cream to their once extremely soulful throats. The two now-pop singers have transformed themselves into cultural-mulatto, assimilationist nightmares; neutered mutations instead of thriving hybrids. Trying to please both worlds instead of themselves they end up truly pleasing neither.’

And that wasn't it. There were nagging rumors that Whitney might’ve had same-sex dalliances; behavior then ascribed mostly to bougie-bohemian white women and the non-white women who idolized them, and certainly not to respectable, church-going presentables. 

Indeed, 1989 was a pivotal year. At the Soul Train Awards, Whitney Houston, Karyn White, Regina Belle and Vanessa Williams’ were nominated for Best R n B Urban Contemporary Single by a Female. Whitney’s nomination was booed. Adding injury to insult, ‘Where do Broken Hearts Go’ lost to Belle’s ‘No One in the World’: a song that, as Regina was sure to point out, was dedicated to her husband. 

That night's events stayed with Houston. In an 1990 appearance on the Arsenio Hall show she’d feigned ignorance offering ‘universalist’ dodge, by asking "what did people meant by ‘singing white’?". In a subsequent interview, she'd answer her own question: `Sometimes it gets down to that, you know?  You're not black enough for them. I don't know. You're not R&B enough. You're very pop. The white audience has taken you away from them.’ 

The '89 Soul Train awards stayed with her in other ways too. Whitney’d met then reigning King of RnB, Mr. Bobby Brown that night. Five years later, at those very awards, they’d perform ‘Something in Common’ as man and wife.  Some fawned and gushed. Cynics asked aloud whether that 'something' was ‘crack’; a remark that pointed to, among other things, Whitney’s fake 'good girl' image and self-destructive foray into ‘authentic’ blackness.


The odd pairing made the whisperings of Whitney’s supposed closet lesbianism grow louder. She’d address them directly in a 1996 Dateline NBC interview ‘‘KC:  Because she plays basketball, people think she's a lesbian./ WH:  She's a very tall, very broad woman.  She's been my friend for years.  I don't know.  We've just stuck it out.  And now we're just... I don't know...they just think we're just... I’m not gay.  I'm not lesbian.  I'm a mother, I'm a wife, I'm a daughter.  Lesbian and gay I'm not. Two titles I can't claim. I'm sorry.  I just can't, you know. But I do have a friend.” She’d brook no besmirching of her identity choices and family life. She’d call the media ‘bloodsucking demons’ and the entertainment world ‘madness’.

The pop music landscape had changed dramatically and `home' seemed a better fit now. Celine Dion and Tommy Mattola’s then wife Mariah Carey were dominating the pop charts with voices that rivaled Whitney’s. And, a younger, urban black audience was installing the ‘real’ Mary J. Blige (who took pains to show that she could dance) as their embodiment of black girl pain. Clive Davis was busying himself grooming the next church-bred, classy cross-over:Toronto-born Debra Cox. Houston went `back home', starring in the jilted black girl classic 1995’s Waiting to Exhale and then the Preacher’s Wife the following year. After the gospel soundtrack cracked the charts and won her all sorts of respect, Whitney released the comeback hit “Your Love is My Love” with former Lauryn Hill beau Wyclef Jean. The album of the same name would be a critically acclaimed blend of hip-hop, reggae, and dance, relegating her power ballad and pop sheen days to distant memory. 

She was more herself. And things seemed back on track: Houston would win Artist of the Decade, Female at the Soul Train Music Awards. In 2001, she’d sign a $100 million dollar deal with Arista. Something though was amiss. Despite the cultural comfort and success, she grew more erratic. Some might say, more 'black'.

In 2000, she and Bobby were caught with way too much cannabis. She bailed on Clive Davis’ induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And, in another instance, was sent home for showing up high to work.  In a 2002 interview with Diane Sawyer Houston, when pressed about her rumored drug use, Houston offered perhaps the most ridiculous and self-indicting deflection available:  feigning complete ignorance of drug culture by demanding that her accusers produce receipts from her dealers. She’d then shatter that innocence with a classist dodge, saying: "First of all, let's get one thing straight. Crack is cheap. I make too much money to ever smoke crack. Let's get that straight. Okay? We don't do crack. We don't do that. Crack is wack." The exchange showed overconfidence in an ability to pull the wool over the public’s eyes, and, was the first sequence in a pattern of deflecting then confessing. Years later, she’d admit on Oprah to smoking cocaine laced cannabis prior to meeting Bobby. 

It'd be only reasonable to wonder if she’d been so `cagey' about pandering to white audiences, and her drug use, what of her sexual attraction to women?

In his 2008 tell-all Bobby Brown: The Truth, the Whole Truth and Nothing But… Bobby'd revisit those old rumors, presenting their marriage as one of convenience for Whitney (he, of course, had only the purest of motives): “I believe her agenda was to clean up her image, while mine was to be loved and have children. The media was accusing her of having a bisexual relationship with her assistant, Robyn Crawford. Since she was the American Sweetheart and all, that didn't go too well with her image . . . In Whitney's situation, the only solution was to get married and have kids. That would kill all speculation, whether it was true or not.” This week, British gay rights advocate Peter Tatchell  took the baton, and stirred things up with his`Whitney’s REAL tragedy was giving up her greatest love of all – her female partner Robyn Crawford.’ The title pretty much says it all. As this hit the 'net the just-let-Whitney-rest-in-peace appeals and respectability shut downs came fast and furious. But, what these would-be defenders of Whitney's reputation dared not ask was: why would having a sexual relationship with a woman sully her memory at all?  It doesn't. Right?...Right? 

Funny that Bobby’s malicious and bragging reading of his marriage to one of `the biggest stars in the world’ offered something that the decent ‘shut-it-down’ers' didn’t. Straight or bi, Whitney was still very much affected by ‘homophobic’ attitudes: her own and those belonging to  the respectable folks who comprised her fan-base. No wonder they’d rather not talk about it or wonder in what other ways was Whitney 'Every Woman'?


The quiet pressures of the aspiration-identity complex, where 'respectable folks' dwell, is crucial to appreciating why so many black artists of a particular generation develop serious drug problems. And, whether we attribute Whitney's overdose to her toxic marriage; the pressure to be ‘black enough’; the difficulty of crossing over or self-doubt, we ought to be having some of the same discussions that we have when a bullied gay kid kills him or herself. 

And, let’s go further. Race, gender and sexual preferences are always talked about, but the master gene in the 'slow suicide' sequence: 'love' as a reward of ‘success’ is skillfully talked around. No accident. Engaging it means questioning some of the core beliefs of our 'get ahead' culture. The life arcs of some of our most revered people, people we watched grow up or grew up with, show that genius, beauty and 'success' aren’t `redemptive'. They, in fact, can hasten a demise. They can numb and break your spirit and coke, cannabis, valium, morphine, alcohol, xanax, propofol or whatever else recreate the feeling of normalcy and promote the idea that one can only be safe around those who live the void  because, though they're dangerous, they, like the substances you have in common, can’t judge you. 

I'm thinking that's part of what Whitney meant when she said that 'Bobby was her drug.' 

These questions of Whitney's drug use, marriage, possible queerness, are convoluted ways evading the gaping subjunctive. What choices would she have made had she felt secure in the belief that she could be `successful' and `loved' without having to make herself `palatable' to either a black or 'universal' (i.e., white) audience? 

I suppose that will never be answered. Or the answer isn't at all relevant to the 'mad' world Whitney claimed to save Robyn from, a world that she chose for herself. We, though, can choose better, simply by choosing not to make homes where the hatred is.

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