Like many people, I’ve never really learned to deal with death. Intellectually, I understand very little about it. I know that someone who was once alive, through the stopping of several biological and chemical processes, is no longer alive. When the death is of someone close to me (which have been fortunately few at this point in my life), I understand that I and those around me have lost someone and that the proper and fitting emotion is sadness. Eventually this fades as I’ve learned to live my life without that person. To a large extent, someone else’ death is a very self-centered process.
That being the case, I don’t have much of a reaction to celebrity deaths. Obviously I sympathize with the family and friends of the deceased. I’ve been in that position myself. Without a doubt, the world is not a better place without that person in it. However, my personal world is unchanged. If that sounds narcissistic, it’s only because it is.
Whenever there is a passing, I strive to place that person in context. In Whitney Houston’s case, it was a rather sad process. Besides that song from “The Bodyguard”, the only way I’ve seen Whitney Houston was as a bizarre interviewee with an apparent drug problem. As tributes from more informed writers began making the rounds, I began listening to some of her music. Starting with her deservedly famous rendition of the Star Spangled Banner and followed by several of her songs stripped of all backing instrumentation, I came to believe what everyone was writing; she was a near supernatural talent.
As I gained a little understanding of the reaction to her death, I couldn’t help but cringe at times. First, “edgy” jokes about her death struck me as particularly tone deaf. The more I think about this though, the more I think Twitter is at fault. A joke in bad taste is not inherently a bad joke, but when it’s made loudly in a public place, it leaves a distinct feeling of disgust. Joking about death fits when sitting with a group of friends trying to deal with the basic horror that eventually we’ll all face the same fate. It’s less fitting when it’s broadcast to the internet in an attempt to gain a couple of followers. Plus, most of the jokes where told not too long ago to accompany the passing of Amy Winehouse and, for the same reasons, they failed to get a laugh out of me the first time around. Maybe I’m just getting old.
The second set of reactions which left me cold were economic. Because her passing caused a surge in demand, the price of Houston’s songs on iTunes were increased by almost a third. Reports were that “The Bodyguard” was also removed from Netflix Instant in an unconfirmed attempt to sell more DVDs. While the latter turned out to be false (the movie was removed shortly before her death), both initial reports were unsurprising. Strangely, watching companies try to profit off the death of an individual humanized Houston in my mind.
In her life, Houston did a very private thing very publicly, and she did it very well. Her voice was something of a miracle, inspiring awe in any audience. She was also a fallen person; in and out of rehab and night clubs, trying to sell records and regain her former fame. We watched, listened, and laughed at her. Then we were, in some way, sad when she was gone. I’m not sure how else we could react.
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