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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Remembering Whitney Houston in reality (TV) and truth

No matter what they take from me, they cant take away my dignity.
  • No matter what they take from me, they can't take away my dignity."

The day after we sat on the couch watching four hours worth of Whitney Houston's funeral coverage on CNN, my wife burst into the bedroom and blurted out a confession. She'd just indulged in an old episode of "Being Bobby Brown," and she felt dirty, guilty, complicit.

Watching grainy YouTube footage on a laptop can have that effect on you, especially when the show in question is largely responsible for defaming the once-pristine image of America’s sweetheart.

In the week and a half since she’s passed, Whitney Houston's been dissected and re-examined up one side and down the other by media types eager to absolve themselves of any guilt over her celebrity-induced death yet equally anxious to capitalize on the conjecture surrounding it. I’ve been reluctant to add my own two cents to the public discourse for fear of sounding too sentimental or overly cynical. But coming to terms with her legacy hasn’t been nearly as daunting as the attempt to reconcile the polarized responses from those quick to canonize her for her successes on one hand and cannibalize her for her failures on the other.

The resulting fervor guarantees that she will be remembered for generations to come, good or bad. But how we choose to remember our cultural heroes, fatalistic flaws and all, says a helluva lot more about us than it does them.

Will she always be the pure, pop ingenue who literally beamed with admiration and self-love in the 1986 video for "The Greatest Love of All"? Or, was that icon forever eclipsed by the barely functioning addict in a dysfunctional marriage that made "Being Bobby Brown" must-see reality TV in 2005?

When I interviewed Quincy Jones that same year for another publication, he practically balked when the show came up. “What do you think about it?” he threw the question back at me. I almost hated to tell him I was an undercover fan.

For years she’d simply been “The Voice,” as Oprah Winfrey royally pronounced Houston in an early interview. And with such an angelic voice — rooted in the black Baptist church but refined enough for Top 40 radio — paired with Wilhelmina-approved beauty, she was the total package. Surrounded by a contemporary sound and carefully selected songs so commercially viable she never had to cross over, Houston personified ’80s innocence, just as her successful foray into film would hint at the late-’90s excess to come.

After initially refusing, Houston reluctantly agreed to appear on “Being Bobby Brown” out of allegiance to her husband. The reality show set in Atlanta was supposed to help launch the long-awaited comeback for the bad boy of R&B when it aired in ’05. But viewers of the highly rated show quickly surmised that neither Bobby nor Whitney were quite ready for prime time. The show seemed unscripted and unhinged, as cameras followed them from the DeKalb County courtroom (where Brown stood with his then-lawyer, a pre-RHOA Phaedra Parks, to face charges of spousal abuse against Houston), to the Hyatt in Buckhead (where the family endured an extended stay while repairs were made to their suburban home), to restaurants such as the Palm (where they attended to their appetites).

It was taboo to admit it in 2005, but America was in the midst of its own raging addiction. For a nation enthralled with the rumored dimming of one of its brightest pop stars, tuning in to Bravo’s weekly fix of “Being Bobby Brown” was like slamming a dose of Whitney porn, raw and uncut. And not just because the dark-tinted shades she often hid behind on the show failed to conceal her character defects. But because for once we were finally getting something that her well-coiffed public image, crafted in part by Clive Davis and his Arista machine, had successfully hidden for years: her humanity. As drug-diminished a caricature as she may have appeared at the time, there was an unmasked sense of humor and spunk about her that almost seemed genuine in comparison. Even her most dubious contribution to pop culture — a tart “HELL-TO-THE-NAW” given in response to any request from Bobby, or anyone else, that worked her nerve while the cameras were rolling — did more to personalize her to a remote fan base than the Guinness World Record-shattering abundance of Grammys, AMAs, Billboard, and World Music Awards she would accumulate throughout her career.

At Houston’s televised funeral last Saturday, her closest family and friends charged themselves with rounding out the two-dimensional persona that critics and fans had been alternating between all week. From the pulpit, Tyler Perry painted a portrait of Houston framed at every sharp turn in her life by God’s grace. BeBe Winans talked about the “crazy Whitney” he considered family — and by “crazy” he meant the side of Houston that dared to sing background, against Clive Davis’s will, for the virtually unknown gospel duo BeBe and CeCe Winans when they were supposed to be the opening act on one of her early headlining tours. But it was Houston’s brother-in-law and bodyguard of the last 11 years who best contextualized the sacrifices she made by detailing how she’d selflessly given every bit of herself — pain and personal failings included — for our primal enjoyment.

Houston’s ability to ignite public passion on stage was rivaled only by her capacity to self-destruct in private. It just so happened that for eight fateful episodes in 2005, we were invited along for the ride. And in some ways that probably does make us as culpable as Bobby Brown and every other enabler in her life. But in no way does the ugly, human side Houston flashed for the cameras diminish the level of dignity she achieved in life. If anything, it makes her musical feats and accomplishments (including her 2009 comeback album I Look to You) all the more divine.

In the end, Houston’s story isn’t as black or white as her defenders or detractors alternately proclaim. To the contrary, it’s quite colorful when viewed in the proper light. But unless we can collectively embrace the triumph and the tragedy, it might be all for naught.

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