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Beyond Lionizing the Dead: Why Whitney Houston Matters

She impacted the world of music in ways few of this generation can even imagine.

by
Jonathan Sanders

Bio

February 16, 2012 - 10:24 pm
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But Houston, like so many others we propel into superstar status, fought a dark side. Like Jackson before her, she experienced a meteoric rise and then just as quickly saw her career flounder when her angelic, movie-star image tarnished through years of well-publicized drug abuse. Her failings were fodder for our wide-spread derision, and there are some who, having heard little from Houston but her earliest work, might know her from the satirical mockery of Maya Rudolph’s Saturday Night Live portrayal.

Now that she’s dead, there’s the possibility fans will lionize Houston in the same way as Jackson. Now that she cannot add a music comeback to her legacy, many who had pushed her to the wayside will return her to greatness as they elevate her back to the status of Pop Deity.

It’s easy to bask in the light of a star as it shines and then point and stare as it falls to earth. That’s how our steady diet of reality television conditions us. But we learn nothing from this process. When alive, we see these artists as either a star raised or fallen. There’s only one side we’ll view at a time. When they die, we whitewash the bad and lionize the good while failing to understand that an artist is the product of both the good and the bad.

Why should anyone care about the death of Whitney Houston today? Houston was a legendary musical voice who led a generation of young women to pursue their dreams of pop music stardom. She also succumbed to the world of drugs and the temptations of the superstar’s world. Above all, she was a human being who experienced the highs and lows of life, proving that no one can stand up to the idealized view we have of our celebrity idols. While alive, few could perceive Jackson as more than one aspect of his life. He was either a legendary pop songwriter, or a skewed man-boy and potential sexual deviant. But few could comprehend that perhaps an artist as mercurial as Jackson — or in this case Houston — is a product of all their experiences, not just those we choose to idealize.

Houston should be remembered as a talented woman who impacted the world of music in ways few of this generation can even conceive. But we can also identify the demons which sabotaged her and strive to prevent history from repeating itself in the artists she inspired. In remembering the music Houston made during her lifetime, we can start to understand the sound of true musical greatness. But we also learn from her public failings what happens when gravity takes hold and all we’re left with is our humanity.

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Jonathan Sanders is a freelance music critic currently writing for PJ Media, PopMatters.com and for his personal reviews site, "Hear, Hear!" (http://hearhearmusic.com) A 2008 graduate of Ball State University's journalism school, Sanders lives and writes from southern Indiana where he lives with his wife Aimee.
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