Sunday 3 September 2017

Whitney Houston: Celebrity and Alienation

As pieces cataloguing the price of fame go, Whitney Houston: Can I Be Me is a master class. For readers lucky enough to be younger than 25 years of age, she was one of the deities of the hairspray and shoulder pads epoch. Whitney Houston's pop was candy floss catchy, and was manufactured specifically with white American audiences in mind. She was their Miss Black America, a young black woman with a totally mainstream sound, a style straight from the covers of teenage magazines (which Whitney herself used to model) all designed to ensure there was zero chance of her target market - and their parents - feeling threatened. To the Reagan-voting small C conservative whites, Whitney, like Michael Jackson, like the more sexually ambiguous Prince, was effectively post-racial. Black, fashionable, resolutely non-political. She was idolised and quickly became a fixture in popular culture thanks to seven consecutive number ones in the US and considerable success elsewhere, including here in Britain. The 1990s were also good for her career. You couldn't move for I Will Always Love You and The Bodyguard in 1992 - the year of Peak Whitney - and she saw the decade out with a couple of hits with the then on-trend R&B sound. After this point the media cast her as a fading star, as someone troubled by drug abuse and a volatile marriage. Like so many celebrities her (considerable) talents became secondary to rumour and gossip, and in retrospect it seems her premature passing was as inevitable as it was inexorable.

The sad thing about Whitney Houston is her fate has been repeated hundreds of times before, and will repeat hundreds of times again in the future. As she herself put it, it's not success that changes things: it's fame. Yet "because fame" doesn't work to explain why disproportionate numbers of celebrities die prematurely. To approach understanding we need to prise the social positioning of the megastardom "enjoyed" by Whitney apart and bring a bit of theory to bear.

Alienation is a process of estrangement and dehumanisation, of seeing and experiencing relationships between human beings as if they were relationships between things. In the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx argued alienation was rooted in work in the capitalist workplace, specifically the fact that workers do not own what they produce (and therefore never receive the full fruits of their efforts), their activity is under the direction of an employer, and workers are forced by necessity to enter into these arrangements. No employment means the uncertain subsistence of social security in the advanced countries, and sometimes nothing in developing economies. As Lukacs observed in his essay on consciousness and "false" consciousness, the experience of alienation is different if you own capital and invest it. Generalising to bourgeois philosophy, he notes it "... observes economic life consistently and necessarily from the standpoint of the individual capitalist and this naturally produces a sharp confrontation between the individual and the overpowering supra-personal ‘law of nature’ which propels all social phenomena" (History and Class Consciousness 1968, p.63). Alienation strips the human out of human relations. It instrumentalises, oppresses, and empties, leaving behind neediness, bitterness, anger, frustration, fatalism, despair.

While Whitney Houston wasn't a capitalist in the classical sense, her celebrity placed her in an analogous position. Her passage from teenage model to pop princess and then to megastardom saw movement from a privileged and well remunerated record company employee to a star in creative control of her own fate. And that meant being at the pinnacle of an organisation geared solely to her reproduction as a mega celebrity. Can I Be Me illustrates this perfectly with its focus on Whitney's successful 1999 world tour. The behind the scenes gives a sense of scale and enterprise, of how a celebrated personality is always a collective effort. Yes, it's Whitney who goes out on the stage, performs to the point of exhaustion and has to live with the weight of expectation and tabloid intrusion. She was the linchpin of the whole thing - capital without the capitalist is possible, but you can't have the performance without the performer. It's a lonesome position and one few empathise with, let alone experience, and without social support it can be corrosive. Here was Whitney's problem. All of the talking heads were employees, including her family. No friends, just the hired help. It's this more than anything that demonstrates the way fame transformed Whitney's life. Her family, her childhood friend Robyn Crawford, and later her husband Bobby Brown were all on the payroll. The most intimate, and usually the most cherished and important relationships a human being can have were subject to the cold nexus of cash. This was summed up in what was surely a devastating blow to her. John Houston, the dad she by all accounts revered and doted on was party to a $100m lawsuit against her shortly before his death. The suit was dismissed, but speaks of the twisting of parental love into money grubbing. Imagine what that would do to someone for whom the love of their father was a foundation stone of their personality, of their sense of security and self in the world. Truly a case of the world being against you, of leaving cherished, happy memories so much like ashes in the mouth. This was one of Whitney's three great losses. The court case was preceded by fights between Robyn and Bobby at the end of her '99 tour, which saw her friend - another rock and sometime lover - let go and paid off without ever having contact with Whitney again. And in 2007 she and Bobby divorced amid claims of infidelity. In the space of seven years, key intimacies - the parent, the best friend, the spouse - were all gone, all destroyed.

Whitney Houston was infamous for her drug problem, and her (recreational) use of them stretches back to her teenage years. Contrary to the myth that marrying Bobby Brown was her ultimate undoing, Can I Be Me establishes it was she who introduced him to drugs. What he brought to the relationship was an alcohol habit. Like so many celebrities who turn to something to manage the bizarre existence of being famous (Tom Cruise and Scientology, Madonna and Kabbalah, Michael Jackson and his "eccentricities"), Whitney's drug use mushroomed from the recreational to full-on dependency by the mid-90s. Addiction was found not in the properties of the substances she used but in the void, of lending an emotional crutch to allow her to limp through the days. One is also struck by how narrow the documentary presents her social universe, which seemed entirely composed of her family, her husband, his family, and Robyn Crawford even in the "happy" times. One by one as those relationships collapsed, her social universe frayed and the drugs rushed in to fill what was left. Toward the end her only real relationship left was with her daughter, Bobbi Kristina, but that clearly was not enough.

By all accounts, Whitney Houston was a warm, loving person. She valued her family, her friendships and her marriage. It was fame, of her place at the top of a machine that reproduced her celebrity, of her position in the firmament of a sharply competitive attention economy, how that cut her off from the wider social world and positioned her friends and family in a division of labour bound to her by money that was her undoing. What did for her was the poisoning of relationships. She didn't have a drug habit because her husband was a bad 'un, or because he father betrayed her trust, it was an understandable but destructive strategy for coping with an alienated life.

1 comment:

Speedy said...

Good post.