Whitney Houston‘s sad and sudden death on the eve of the Grammys after a well-documented history with substance abuse has plunged the media into schizophrenic mode as it wrestles with ways to praise her legacy while acknowledging her lurid end.
The news on Monday, after hagiographic tributes at the Grammys on Sunday, dragged readers back to ugly reality: Whitney Houston was found submerged in her bathtub, police said. She’d been pulled from the bathwater and attempts at resuscitation were futile.
Before that, most news organizations by and large focused on her superstardom and on her climb to the top of the music charts with a uniquely powerful and stirring voice. In the first blush of death, the pop star’s final, drug-addled decade was a parenthesis.
“The real sad loss happened ten years ago,” Leo Braudy, author of “The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and Its History,” told TheWrap. “She was the walking wounded, but the press is not going to alienate her fans by writing that. So it becomes this mixed bag between weeping on the grave and dancing on the grave.”
The timing of Houston’s death, coming as it did before music’s biggest awards show and in the same hotel as her mentor Clive Davis’ annual bash, likely played a key role in dictating the coverage.
“The confluence of the timing of the death so close to the Grammys with all of the people who knew her gathered in the same place where she died exacerbates the story,” said Al Tompkins, a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute.
He added: “I wonder how the story would be different if this had happened four weeks from now. There would not be nearly the outpouring of statements and televised memorials. The story gets larger because of the event that surrounded it.”
At 48 years old, Houston died relatively young, but her battle with addiction played out so publicly that the final act was seemingly inevitable. Indeed, it was eerily reminiscent of the slow-motion declines of stars such as Michael Jackson and Amy Winehouse.
On Saturday night, both were on full display. In a dramatic series of tonal shifts, the press offered up celebrity remembrances of Houston, shots of candlelight fan vigils, all interspersed with cut-aways to reporters waiting avidly for Houston’s corpse to be wheeled out of the Beverly Hilton.
Again the parallels with Winehouse and Jackson were impossible to overlook. Those pop stars had also suffered bouts of well-publicized destructive behavior. In turn, their work had suffered. Jackson’s child molestation trials and plastic surgery fixation had turned him into a parody. By the time he died at age 50, he was a far cry from the mega-selling pop icon of his “Thriller” peak.
Likewise, the 27-year-old Winehouse had become a tabloid fixture, with more ink spilled on her rehab stints than her musical gifts. Though Winehouse was not as far removed from her signature album, 2005’s “Back to Black,” as Jackson and Houston were from their career peaks, she had endured a largely fallow period in her final years.
In the wake of their deaths all of that was minimized, with each singer treated as though they were cut down in their prime, when the truth was another matter.
Just as they had with Winehouse and Jackson, news anchors, journalists and obituary writers made mention of the Houston’s problems with substance abuse, but devoted the lion’s share of their coverage to her pop hits, starring role in “The Bodyguard,” and musical legacy. In perhaps a bit of unfounded optimism, some even speculated that Houston might have been poised for a comeback with her supporting role in next summer’s film “Sparkle.”
Less rigorously chronicled were the toll the years of drug abuse took on Houston’s once crystalline voice or her dazed appearance on the short-lived Bravo reality show “Being Bobby Brown” (above) in 2005.
“The time to use this as a teachable moment isn’t now,” said Dr. Pamela Rutledge, director of the non-profit Media Psychology Research Center, told TheWrap. “She represents a lot of sign posts to a lot of people. Whether she inspired people to sing or exercise or act, her music was in all kinds of places and was a real backdrop in all our lives. It makes sense to focus on the positive elements of her life.”
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There’s still time for the timbre of coverage to change, but to some media analysts, that sentiment, while understandable, lets the media and Houston’s fellow celebrities off too easily.
“This is something that everybody saw coming,” Tompkins said. “You have these people who say they are so sorry about what happened and who took to Twitter to express their love for Whitney. They should be asked to what extent did they contribute to her well being?”
A few celebrities have addressed the underlying issue of addiction among celebrities. Tony Bennett, who has had his own struggles with addiction, publicly called for the legalization of drugs in the wake of Houston’s death, saying it could prevent future tragedies. And comedian Patton Oswalt urged Lindsay Lohan‘s “goddamn friends” to try and prevent an untimely end to her troubled life.
Sit her down now, “post-Whitney, post-Michael, post-Amy” and be stern with her, he urged via Twitter. “You could actually save her.”
But most celebrities stuck to simple statements of condolences. Tompkins argues that if the media and music industry were really serious about honoring the singer’s legacy, they could have pushed for more substantive change.
“Wouldn’t it be interesting to say, ‘This is a wake up call for the entertainment industry and there’s going to be a no alcohol policy at the Grammys,’” Tompkins said. “I haven’t heard anybody say, ‘there is a prescription drug abuse epidemic in our industry and we need to do something about it.’ The question is, how much do you care?”