The First Time I Saw Her

In astrophysics, the concept is simple, and the phenomenon we witness among Earthly stars seems to mimic nature.  The largest stars in the cosmos burn bright, furiously so, consuming all their energy to maintain their volume against the gargantuan force of gravity that will inevitably destroy them, born of their vast size.  In short, the bigger the star, the faster it burns, and the quicker its light will be extinguished in a flash, usually in a few million years.  Small stars like our own Sun haven’t the mass to go out quite like this, and they never achieve supernova, so instead they become a stable engine for life to spring into existence and thrive for billions of years before expending the energy contained in their mass.  Our Earthly stars often seem to follow a similar pattern, with a stunning ignition that clears all debris from their vicinity, but the energy required to maintain their towering stature often undermines it in the end.  Too often, as we have seen with so many others, the decline for some of our pop culture stars is as sudden as their ascent.  So it has been with Whitney Houston, dead at age 48, apparently the victim of her incapacity to cope with her own early, brilliant successes.

I was a young solider when Houston erupted onto the scene, and her initial string of hits grew, but somewhere along the way, she was morphed slowly from a “nice girl” into some kind of “diva.”  This happens to a large number of stars, as the marketeers try to take them from some form of clean-cut beginnings into a bad-boy/naughty-girl cast.  I’m not really sure why, except to appeal to more people, or to create some sort of marketing narrative, but it seems always to coincide with their move from blossoming star to mega-star.  After that, it seems always a fight to maintain that pinnacle, and so outrages are common fare, but one wonders if that’s all there really is to it.  While it seems almost programmatic at times, I also note that this is when they start to benefit more wildly from their newly-minted wealth.  In one sense, it may be like the lottery winners’ syndrome, and I expect this rapid move from modest means to previously unimaginable wealth plays a role in the problem.

By the early to middle 1990’s, I had begun to separate from the pop-culture in a significant way, but just as I did, some stories about the growing tribulations of Whitney Houston’s life had surfaced.  I shook my head, as I walked away from the entire pop-culture scene, knowing what must ultimately happen to Whitney Houston.  Strictly speaking, it wasn’t inevitable, but from my increasingly cynical point of view at the time, I did not see how she would escape what I suspected would come.  It took just a little longer than I thought, and apparently, she made a number of attempts at a comeback, but to survive the drugs and the entire range of problems she was by then experiencing takes a life of near-perfection without failures and back-slides along the way.  Few have the ability to come back from all of that, or at least so it seems.

What I believe happens in most of these cases is a sort of disconnect between their new wealth and their understanding not only of how to keep it, but how they acquired it in the first place. Many young stars in that position seem to suffer from a misplaced sense of what brought them success, and they shift from trying to be successful as singers to being successful at maintaining their fame.  It doesn’t help that as soon as they “make it,” they are descended upon by a parade of parasites who all seek to skim a little money and a little fame for themselves.  People who wouldn’t give them the time of day only a short time before suddenly won’t go away, as hucksters and charlatans can’t wait to thin out their accounts.

It is in this circus atmosphere where the trouble usually begins, and as so often is the case, it revolves around booze, drugs, or both.  Once the addictions begin in earnest, they may do a number of stints in rehabilitation when they collide with the law, but in the main, they are on their way down.  All of the hangers-on already begin to sense the end, and rather than abandon ship, they make a conscious decision to “get while the getting’s good,”  and the rate of the loss of wealth accelerates.  They’re bleeding money, and they’re generally losing their ability to produce more, either from a lack of the ability to function, or the fact that they’ve harmed themselves in such a way that their former talent is reduced to a memory.  How bad must it get for a singer who smokes crack or even marijuana?  What does it do to their voice, and their capacity to hold an extended note?  More, since most of these drugs either deaden or modify one’s senses, one’s own perception of one’s performance will likely be skewed.  No longer are they as demanding of themselves as when they first ascended the ladder to success.

This leads to declining fortunes, and declining returns on their inferior efforts.  In turn, they start to lose fans, and when this happens, it delivers a crushing blow to their egos, and thus it is that they fall more deeply into the clutches of their various addictions.  Unable to meet their fans expectations any longer, they collapse, and then without intervention, it’s usually a quick trip to the bottom with the only question being how long they will linger.  They attempt comebacks, but the problem is that they’re accustomed to being treated as a star, only few treat them this way any longer.  Those in their inner-circle are often vultures, as they hide from family and friends who were close before their fame how far they have fallen.

Of course, many people in this instance immediately think of Michael Jackson, because the totality of the picture is not all so dissimilar.  In truth, it’s shockingly the same.  Of course, not all are singers as we can remember many in sports, and all forms of fame who have fallen into similar situations.  Of course, there have been a lot of singers, as I recall Elvis Pressley of a two generations before.  There was another young star who burned bright, fell and attempted comebacks, but ultimately succumbed at least in part to his addictions.  He managed to hold onto more of his wealth, but still, the general pattern applies.   You can list them, the whole long line of them, and when you do, you’ll realize how frequently this pattern repeats.

Last Pictured on Friday

It shouldn’t be inevitable, because people are not stars, in fact, but merely people, and when we elevate them to that status, it seems the go off on a course that frequently imitates the natural objects.  They burn brightly indeed, and their end is never pretty, but one sees the birth of a new star and hopes briefly that this one, perhaps, will not end up the same as the others.  Whitney Houston had been a powerful singer, and a remarkable young woman when  I first knew of her, but the poor woman who died in Los Angeles Saturday evening at the young age of 48 was no longer that woman.  Dejected, or even depressed, and addicted without the reserves of discipline she once had in her youth, she succumbed, and like so many supernovas in nature, she ended leaving only a prematurely cold body from which light would no longer shine onto our world.

I mourn her passing, as a powerful voice still singing with memories from my youth, but also as one more solemn warning to the superstars of tomorrow.  They needn’t mimic the giants of nature, as all life is a choice, and one hopes that somehow, those who loved them before fame and fortune  could set them straight early on, but they so seldom are.  As long as we have superstars, we’re likely always to have supernovae, but unlike in nature, their early passing needn’t have been inevitable, and it’s a shame.

For my part, I choose to remember Whitney Houston as she was when I first became aware of her entrance onto the music scene:

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