“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” -Zen aphorism
Death has parted us from another pop star. Whitney Houston, aged 48, drew her final breath inside a bathtub full of water, her heart finally waving the white flag from a fourth-floor hotel room floating somewhere above the boulevards of Beverly Hills.
Like Amy Winehouse, another genetically wealthy vocalist who traded in a remarkable career for the bottle and a pipe, Houston’s death was tragic but unsurprising. Her narcotic decline was well-documented in both words and photos, splayed out wherever an eye could rest. From the pages of reputable print outlets to the nastiest online gossip sites, her tragic, head-shaking story unfolded in embarrassing snapshots, outlandish quotes and the solemn comments of observers eager to point out the obvious with a sense of profundity: Whitney Houston would die if she did not find some way to put the brakes on her relentless drug and alcohol abuse. Couldn’t someone close to her intervene to save our beloved pop queen?
Know this as surely as you know your name: Houston’s death was as preventable as the sun rising and setting.
Even if Houston’s insiders pulled out all the stops to divert her into treatment, if Houston wasn’t ready to stop, there’s not a rehab or twelve-step program in the world that could have kept her clean. Without her full commitment, she might have paused, but she never would have stayed stopped. Logic, reason and emotional appeal (“What about her daughter?”) are as effective on addiction as they are on cancer. Houston had ample motivation to turn things around, including people who loved her, access to limitless creature comforts and of course, she enjoyed the adoration of millions. As the saying goes, that and a token will get you on the subway.
As news of her death spread, social media outlets caught fire with messages vilifying her as just another entitled celebrity who got what she deserved. Admittedly, she was no Mother Teresa but Houston did nothing to attract the tsunami of anonymous scorn that has battered her memory. She made a public ass of herself time and again, far more effectively than any catty post-mortem Facebook status ever could.
Other reactions were far more craven. Her label Sony marked her passing by jacking up the price of two of her albums only hours after her death. In a more tasteful tribute, Chris Cornell has commandeered the Internet’s bandwidth with a chill-inducing cover of her biggest hit, itself a cover of the Dolly Parton song “I Will Always Love You.” Whitney’s own version is now forever steeped in pathos and wistful regret. Of course, the song sounds exactly the same as it did two weeks ago when she was still alive, but in life we get to choose what meaning we wish to attach to each experience and many will now associate the song with the untimely passing of another superstar.
Many lament having never seen Houston perform live. Others wonder what might have become of the star had she turned things around and resurrected her career. I’ll leave these musings to her hardcore fans.
I would like to suggest however, that there are thousands of other Whitneys out there right now. They might not be as vocally gifted and perhaps they’re not as beautiful, but as you read these words, there are countless passionate, talented musicians criss-crossing the planet in cramped little vans, playing songs so beautiful that you might forget to breathe for a second if you heard them. There are bands taking stages this very minute, ready to unleash towering walls of rock, metal, psychedelia, jazz, blues and pop. Almost all of them are doing it for very little money and practically zero fame. Not that they wouldn’t die for a career like Houston’s–it’s just that precious few talents actually reach that height. That doesn’t mean the music is any less spectacular, it just means that it’s still waiting to be heard.
Do yourself a favor this month and go find a show. Turn off American Idol, The Voice and all those other glorified karaoke contests that the networks use to sell cars and hamburgers. Find some musicians who are doing it not to become overnight celebrities but because it’s all they’ve got. Check out your local concert calendar or even hike over to an open mic night and treat yourself to the supreme pleasure of watching a musician play from the gut. Celebrate the musicians who are still with us, working harder than any million dollar CEO for just a couple bucks for food and crappy hotel bed. Whatever flavor of music you dig, just find something you love and enjoy it while it’s still around. Enjoy the hell out of it.
Just because everything ends doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the ride.
TNB Music Editor