Sunday, February 12, 2012

Never to Walk in Anyone's Shadow

Yesterday morning, my brother M posted this item on his website, -

Rumors began circulating Friday that legendary pop diva Whitney Houston has been offered a seat on the judging/mentoring panel for the second season of Fox's The X Factor.

My comment on the Facebook link was, "Oh, I would DEFINITELY watch if this were to happen." I'd have programmed my DVR then and there if I could have. But just thirteen hours later, I learned that Houston had died. I was always game for a Whitney comeback but she ran out of chances. And that really sucks.

When I think of what would have made her so perfect for that X Factor gig, of course her legendary voice comes to mind. Who would be better qualified to judge singing talent? But, honestly, the second thing that comes to mind is that infamous clip from The Soup.

It is widely regarded as one of the greatest (i.e. funniest) Soup clips of all time. I'm not going to post it here because this isn't a time to be funny, so I'll summarize instead. It was a scene from the short lived reality TV program "Being Bobby Brown". Whitney and then-husband BB were arguing about the Iraq War and George W. Bush. Bobby was anti-Bush but Whitney was inclined to defend the president, rather vehemently. "George is trying to protect us!" As the argument built and Bobby continued to mock GWB and the war, Whitney reached her limit and screamed, "Kiss my ASS!" That brief image of Whitney shredding those three words is now a classic, probably because The Soup has replayed it numerous times over the past several years (I'd be very surprised if they didn't retire it now).

Sure, when I watched that clip, I was laughing at Whitney. But I was loving her, too. No pop culture figure better encapsulated the term "diva", and that shrill retort absolutely fit the bill. Certainly, her marriage to Brown and the addictions they shared were tragic.* It sounds like he treated her horribly. But I've been reading a lot of obituaries and I'm already tired of the narrative trajectory. "Pop megastar, America's first black sweetheart, gains fame in the 80's and peaks in the early 90's. Marries a less talented and thoroughly insecure, 'bad boy' pop star who leads her astray. Years of drug and alcohol addiction follow, then divorce. Tries to make a comeback but she's clearly lost her chops. Dies in a hotel room and we all kinda know how." The basic message is that if she had just stuck to the old formula - being the polished princess that we knew twenty some years ago - maybe she would not only be alive, but also well.

The problem with that narrative is that I suspect it negates who Whitney Houston was in her heart. Maybe in her relationship with Bobby Brown she was able to reveal a harder edge that wasn't so pop-friendly. But that edge is now an integral part of her iconic image. Honestly, I couldn't have cared less if Simon Cowell wanted 1992 Whitney to judge his competition show. Undeniable talent aside, she was kinda boring then. I was thrilled about yesterday's Whitney, the one who lost her temper with her ridiculous man-child husband on national TV, the one who was rumored to have buddied up with Courtney Love after the divorce, the one who famously stated, "Crack is whack." Again, I don't mean to deny the sadness of her demise or the circumstances that led to it. I find it incredibly depressing. All I know is that yesterday morning, I was genuinely excited that 2012 Whitney might be returning to the pop culture forefront - not to reclaim the woman she was last century, but to be the whole complicated package of a person we'd come to know and still loved.

* I admit, I'm a Bobby Brown fan. Don't Be Cruel is a great album and "My Prerogative" is my all-time favorite karaoke song. I always attempt to sing it exactly as he did, with that odd blend of swagger and self pity. I also loved his stint on Celebrity Fit Club and credit him for still trying in the end, even after falling off the fitness wagon so many times. I think of him every time I gorge myself on potato chips... Oh, and of course I agreed with his side of the Iraq war argument.

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