Whitney Houston’s death at the mere age of 48 took me, just like everyone else, by surprise. Despite the fact that her voice was not as crystalline as before, it was still beautiful, and boy, the woman could sing. After the release of her last album I Look to You in 2009, I was looking forward to years of new albums from her.
At the time of this post’s writing, we still do not know how or why she died. But her life, marked by a soaring flight into superstardom, subsequent crash into darkness and a slow, steady and sometimes painful climb out, is already a good source for reflection.
Back in the pre-internet, pre-cheap laptop days, it took a lot of time, effort and money to find talent, to train it, to market it, and to recreate it in a way that it remains fresh and palatable. These conditions created a perfect environment in which the likes of Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson rose to superstardom.
But is this still a viable pattern for the music industry? With the increasing accessibility of information at the tip of the fingers of more and more people, the world is coming together in a very unique way. The seven billion of us can finally break free from the music that is, in a way, imposed on us by radio and television and explore just about any music we want that is available on the internet with relative ease. It is true that some singers appeal to a larger portion of the population than others and might be the perfect candidate for becoming a global superstar. However, because we know that we can find something that resonates more with us, more and more individuals do not remain restricted to what we are fed. That global superstar might therefore be an exception rather than a rule.
What’s more, in a world where so many bands can and are selling their songs online, a global superstar has to find a way to be heard over the increasing cacophony that can be the internet. It seems that shock is the attention-seeking technique of choice singers are resorting to. As more and more performers (ex. Lady Gaga) resort to shock to be heard, they will all have to say and do more and more shocking things to keep at the head of the pack and not be swallowed up by the constant stream of younger, more energetic and fresher singers, all eager for their 15 months of global superstardom.
This creates an environment in which we have come to disrespect the artists that are at the centre of it all. And by we, I do not only mean the public; I mean the industry and even the artist him/herself. The singers are mere players in a giant, strategic attention-seeking game. And subsequently, there is only so much respect we can give their music.
One of the signs that we do not respect the music these people create is the ease with which we toss the old songs out when something new comes out. This point in particular comes to mind as suddenly the airways are filled with Whitney Houston’s music, after years of being snubbed. Does such a tribute, i.e. flooding the airways with her music, mean anything after years of snubbing her?
Similarly, it seems so jarringly contradictory that the same radio stations (as well as celebrity tabloid magazines and entertainment shows) that almost gleefully followed Whitney Houston’s breakdown are now playing her songs after her passing as a tribute. It is almost as if the radio stations, the magazines and the shows will do anything to be heard, read and watched, whether via a cruel judge or a loving, grieving ‘friend’
While the symptoms are multiple and complex, the reason seems pretty straight-forward: selling music has become an end in itself, rather than a natural consequence of creating beautiful music. Just like objects have become more and more fragile, in such a way as to promote a consumerist culture in which we must purchase the same type of item again and again rather than keep it for years, music has become ‘fragile’ in its lack of depth. Rather, cheap music is being created at a quicker and quicker rate. And just like when we consume junk food without ever really feeling satisfied, we consume more and more music with the hope that the next song will satisfy us so fully that we will be eager to listen to it again and again for years to come – but in vain.
This lack of satisfaction is barely surprising, seeing as how the depth that music was known for has been replaced by quick fix songs that stir our baser need, that is, our sex drive. While it does produce some funny internet jokes, it also makes one pause.
Music used to be a way to say the things that could not be expressed with words alone. It is therefore not surprising that music is a ladder for the soul to understand things that we might not otherwise be able to put into words, such as our awe at realizing our smallness in the midst of the vast universe. And if we consider music as a ladder to the soul, singers and songwriters shoulder a heavy burden that they cannot fulfill with the current pattern with which the industry produces new music. And because each person’s soul communes with their God in a very unique way, there cannot logically be such a thing as one global superstar that makes everyone’s soul soar in the same way. Even Michael Jackson, whom I am a huge fan of, easily one of the world’s most known superstars, could not cultivate a perfect record, as many did not like his songs and/or his performances.
Perhaps the reason why many popular singers/performers fall into these dark places is because they have lost that connection with something bigger than themselves, and consequently, the only place their passion can lead them is down. Whatever the case might be, I personally cannot sit idle as talented singer after singer is ground and spit out in this money-making, ego-boosting machinery.
As a fan of such singers as Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson, I think the best tribute we can give them is to take a step back from the fetid environment of the music industry as it currently stands, bring out our favourite songs from the depths of our music collection and learn to really appreciate them. We can also look for new music in unconventional places, searching for the type of songs that are uplifting to the soul. Because with the rising awareness of the masses of people of their inherent nobility and the great spiritual destiny of their country, the whole global superstar concept seems passé; and the best legacy Whitney Houston can leave behind is a world much kinder to those as talented as her.