7 a.m. The mobile phone’s text alert wakes me up: Incoming message from a buddy. “RIP Whitney”. WHAT?! Whitney Houston dead? I switch the TV on, but European and US Business channels don’t say anything yet. So, sleepy as I am, I flip the laptop’s lid open to check the web. Indeed: Newsday and Foxnews report, Ms. Whitney Houston was found dead yesterday at 3.55 p.m. in her Beverly Hilton hotel room. She was only 48. According to this and other quickly emerging reports the suspected cause of death is rumored to be linked to her ongoing drug abuse in the later years of her career. When reading this, I can’t help but think of Michael Jackson’s death and the disconnected borderline bizarre facts that aired in the aftermath of his dubious passing. And then Amy Winehouse and Phyllis Hyman and …. Elvis Presley, Kurt Cobain, and similar cases in the movie industry… the list goes on almost infinitely.
Of course, I’m in shock. But I’m also mad. I’m mad at responses and comments that pass judgement on Ms. Houston. In particular I’m mad when I see how the tabloids’ brainwash does a whole nine yards job on the public perception: People tend to confuse the stage persona with whoever the real person is, or – was, actually. I can’t say, that I knew any of the above mentioned celebrities any better than any other music consumer. OK. But I think I have enough insight into the industry to say this: People resort to alcohol, drugs and all kinds of behaviours that are so damn easy to judge for a reason! And that reason – IMO and from what I was able to observe and identify – is excess expectations by management, label representatives, media and – last, but not least – us, the audience and consumer. For how can we expect them to be at the top of their game all the freaking time? Do sports athletes have one successful match after another, one great season following the next? Does your favorite movie star appear only in great movies, one better than the other? And ourselves: Can we really say we’re always delivering top notch performance on the job, even if our bosses expect us to and we claim we do? Sure enough there are good days and not so good ones. And wouldn’t we always defend this as being normal, being human? Yet we put these artists on a pedastal and will not ever give them a break from then on, let alone tolerate mediocrity?
There are those who maintain the Michael Jacksons and Whitney Houstons of our world knew what they got themselves into. You seriously think so? How could they have known that? All they may have known was their talent, their gift, and a passion for it along with the feeling that this gift needs to be shared with the world. But could they have known they are sacrificing their lives to become public property after having signed a contract? Can you really know an experience from just looking at it? Even when we consider that Whitney Houston had some “heavy weight” celebrities in her own family and that those may have shared their experiences and insights with young Whitney – could she have known what it’s going to feel like to be hauled all across the planet, dragged from one press conference to the next, one promotional tour to another, one album to yet another one. And could she have known that an entire other industry – namely the tabloid press – will feed on her every move, in particular her later marriage with Bobby Brown? But worst of all: Haven’t well all supported this by buying into all the printed crap, by not lowering our expectations, by eagerly awaiting statements of her record company on an upcoming album or tour? And when I ask myself all these questions, these go for the industry and their artists in general.
I mean, try to picture yourself like this: You step outside your home to go to work. In the midst of the driveway you are singled out by a bunch of photographers and press bombarding you with all kinds of questions. You know you’re gonna be late for the job, but you remain friendly, try to politely answer all questions thrown at you. You eventually arrive at your workplace, and a post-it is stuck to your cubicle’s wall: “Please report to your supervisor as soon as you get in.” And then the phone rings. You pick up, another reporter hurls a series of questions at you. You’re going to be late for the meeting with the supervisor, but you stay calm and answer, for if you didn’t, someone might color you “pretentious” or “difficult” or aloof. Now you’re finally fixing to see your supervisor, the phone rings again and the number reads “HOME”. Ah! Probably an emergency, so you pick up and sure enough: Your kid came home from school early on account of illness. You might go “Doh, sounds like my last week”. Yes, o.k. – but: This will not be a challenging day or week – this is how life as a “public property” must feel like all the time. And you don’t get to call the shots any more, someone else does. All the time. Day in, day out. Your job: Give your 200%, all the time, day in, day out. Sounds like slave terms to me. Do you really think anyone is able to maintain their sanity in light of this? Can you see the being owned, can you feel it?
The recent deaths of music celebrities all seem to follow a pattern: Catch them young, sign them before they get to think about it, “milk” them as fast and as long as you get to, then cast them away like rotten tomatoes. You may not appreciate my wording, but I’m almost sure, you’ll be able to see the pattern, don’t you? But pattern or not: What gets me the most is how readily people seem to throw out compassion in cases like this. I will never forget the completely contemptuous comments some people left on Lisa-Marie Presley’s Myspace blog entry almost immediately after Michael Jackson’s passing ( apparently, she has removed that entry as the comments were simply too tactless and degrading). How can anyone be so cruel and not even for one split second remember that even the biggest stars were people first?
So today, next to my being mad at the way the music industry seems to work, next to my sadness over the passing of yet another icon of my youth, I have this wish. No, it’s actually a demand: Show some respect, people! Keep the judgement to yourselves and seek validation of your opinions in other areas. R.I.P., Ms. Houston!