The first I heard of Whitney Houston’s death was when I received an email from Blogcritics asking if I would like to write an article on her death. After performing due diligence (also known as checking Wikipedia) I confirmed that Blogcritics was not yanking my chain and that, true enough, Houston was really dead, and like any aspiring writer I decided I would write an article.
And then it dawned upon me. Like many a writer before me I had committed to penning a piece on a subject I know next to nothing about. Sure, I know the basics: Houston was a singer and actress, had a history of substance abuse, and was once married to Bobby Brown (which I discovered after I inadvertently purchased his single ‘My Prerogative’ as a teenager – honest). But, in all truth, the first thing that jumps into mind when I hear the name Whitney Houston is Tim Minchin’s pastiche of ‘I Will Always Love You’ in his song ‘Confessions’ when he sings ‘I will always love boobs.‘
I will venture a hypothesis, however. Even among the majority of individuals whose appreciation of Houston’s oeuvre greatly surpasses my own Whitney Houston’s death is, ultimately, meaningless. Subjectively speaking Houston means nothing to me. Her death is sad in precisely the same way as the death of any middle-aged woman whom I have no relationship with is sad. Tomorrow, and the day after that, I will – hopefully – wake up and my life will be none the poorer for her death. Of course, that has nothing to do with any deficit on Houston’s part. There will be hundreds of deaths in the next few days of people whom are, subjectively, nobody to me.
For all the column inches that will be written – and you can be sure there will be a hastily written ‘memoir’ hitting the bookshops soon and some ‘best of’ releases gracing the digital download stores in optimum visibility for visitors – I did not, do not, and never will in any real sense know Whitney Houston, or the legion of celebrities who will in coming months continue to vie for public attention. That brute fact is I hope clear. So, given this absence of actually knowing the deceased I have one simple question: ‘why the hell does it matter?’ I mean that seriously.
The email I received this morning soliciting Whitney Houston articles made the call that any articles should be submitted as soon as possible. Strangely, and I assume this is purely an administrative oversight on the part of Blogcritics, I did not receive an email concerning Ian Gerard Sartorius-Jones, the 21-year-old UK soldier who died in service in Helmand province on 24 January, or the death of 84-year-old Freda Read last week in a house fire in Blackburn, Lancashire. Neither, in fact, did I receive any emails concerning the deaths of thousands of other individuals, including the hundreds who died of starvation, treatable diseases, or after being trafficked as cargo to a myriad of destinations, including the ‘developed’ world, for the purpose of sexual exploitation. What am I to take of this oversight? It must surely be that that the equality of all human beings spoken of in the preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is but a myth.
I do not intend to criticise Blogcritics here – they are doing precisely the same thing that will be taking place in newsrooms across the globe whilst Twitter is still trending on the subject. In fact, it is I think reasonable to publicly acknowledge the joy people have brought to people’s lives. It is reported that Bob Geldof said of the late Michael Jackson that when he “sings, it is with the voice of angels. When his feet move, you can see God dancing.” It is of the very essence of humanity to recognise others’ talents and so it is surely right to give thanks for these. In this sense the singling out of Houston from the, frankly, far more tragic death of a barely adult soldier, for example, is reasonable in that she has wider recognition for her talents.
And yet, there remains something unseemly about the level of treatment that has and will continue to follow yesterday’s events. We will read much that Houston’s death is a tragedy, of fans whom she never even met being inconsolable with grief, of life not being the same with her passing. It is, to put it bluntly, tosh. Houston’s innate worth as a human being was precisely the same as that of the thousands of other deceased, of whom we never even hear about. It is the same as ‘the bum’ you work past on the way to work, the same as the welfare claimant struggling to find work, the same as you and me. It is that which the cult of celebrity, even celebrity that is premised on genuine talent – as Houston’s surely was – rather than simply ‘being famous’ denies. It is this perpetuation that has set up the horrifying spectre that ‘celebrity’ is now a highly sought after life goal.
It is easy to blame ‘the media’ for this distortion of reality, especially in these days of phone-hacking scrutiny. However, mainstream media has always been a market-led business; where there is a market for a product it will endeavour to fulfil this – one need only look to the MailOnline website to witness this phenomenon with an orgy of gossip, bikinis, and ephemera (the current headline asks Did Whitney Houston drown in the bath after taking prescription drugs?). The simple fact: rather than focussing on the manufactured lives of celebrity we should be more concerned with living ordinary lives.
Whitney Houston is dead. For those who knew her I am sorry and you have my sympathy and condolences in this your time of grief. The same condolences and thoughts, and with precisely the same measure, I offer to the loved ones of Freda Read and Ian Gerard Sartorius-Jones.