But in talking and thinking about Houston's story, walking past newsstands where her shiny, bloated face stared up from the tabloid covers, I realized that part of what's so sad about this particular pop culture tragedy is that racism and sexism and celebrity culture only went so far in destroying this woman; the rest she seems to have done herself.
Not only that, but Traister has finally deduced that Bobby Brown, our era's Mr. Norman Maine, is not the dominant figure in the star-crossed Brown/Houston union. Insights this fresh raise grand and troubling questions, among them: At this point, would anybody other than maybe Professor Leonard Jeffries be claiming that Whitney Houston is just a victim of our racist culture?
Apparently so, because—wouldn't you know—it's the "perfect storm" of life in Ronnie Raygun's Amerikkka that continues to buffet the good ship Whitney, a mere 18 years after Reagan left office:
But isn't part of the demonization of black female sexuality about our attitudes and assumptions more than it is about reality? Houston's meteoric rise, after all, had occurred during what Wisconsin professor Werner described as "an extremely chaotic period in African-American culture" during which the class-carving effects of Reaganomics dissolved black communities, the church lost its role as a centralizing organizing structure, and drug wars ripped through black neighborhoods.
In such a climate, what more could our troubled nation expect of the woman former Vibe editor Danyel Smith describes as "like the black Princess Di" (without mentioning that Whitney is, you know, still doing a little better than England's Rose)? But Traister, after some painful excogitation, concedes that it is the songbird herself who must bear primary responsibility. This is my favorite recipe for an article: You set up some fake consensus nobody actually believes, and then dare to challenge it. As it happens, Reason's Sara Rimensnyder reached this clear conclusion, in fewer words, three years ago, with her vision of a large-and-in-charge Whitney batting down pesky questions during the famous Diane Sawyer interview. Sara was also an early adopter of the obvious truth that Whitney was wearing the pants in that Atlanta manse:
Houston hubby Bobby Brown, temporarily released from the maid's quarters where Whitney undoubtedly keeps him when ABC's star interviewer is not around, joined his wife on the interrogation couch for a few minutes—covered in sweat throughout the ordeal.
But it was Reasonoid Brian Doherty who first identified the real issue. (OK, I admit it: Reason is a den of hyperventilating Whitney Houston fans.) The problem, Doherty noted long ago in Suck, isn't Whitney's superstar-befitting misbehavior, it's the clods who need to make a big deal out of it:
But it's ever thus—a man's, man's, man's world, where a woman can't show the slightest sign of slipping from the straight and narrow without being assumed an hysteric, a disaster. Fiona Apple cuts short one New York show and is snickered at as a flighty, whining quitter by critics the World Wide Web over. Rod Stewart has cancelled literally dozens of shows throughout his career because of stomach problems caused by an overdose of semen and is thought of as just "one of the boys." Sinead O'Connor tears up a picture of the Pope on national TV, gets ordained years later as a renegade Catholic priest, and is dismissed as an erratic flake. John Travolta plays straight-man to Gabe Kaplan on national TV and comes back years later to make a movie based on Scientology guru L. Ron Hubbard's unreadable science-fiction epics, yet he remains one of America's most beloved stars. Halle Berry hits one pedestrian and drives away, and the press labels her a menace, a reification of hoary and unfair jokes about female drivers. Jason Priestley drunkenly smashes into numerous objects—power poles, trash cans, a parked car—in the Hollywood Hills and is thought clever for finally disproving that canard floating around that the post-90210 hunk couldn't get arrested in Hollywood anymore. Women seem to earn a dollar for every 59 cents in public contempt and ridicule for their off-center antics.
Which leaves only one question: How do I get to that parallel universe where Whitney Houston and Cyndi Lauper have sterling 50-year careers, while Mariah Carey and Madonna turn out to be flashes in the pan—as the smart money was predicting at the start of their respective careers?