Whitney's Public, Private Struggle

(AP Photo/Matt Sayles, File)

In this Sunday, Nov. 22, 2009, file photo, Artist Whitney Houston performs onstage at the 37th Annual American Music Awards in Los Angeles. Houston died Saturday, Feb. 11, 2012, she was 48.

I hadn’t thought of Whitney Houston in years but, about a month ago, her name actually came up in conversation. My boyfriend and I were talking about the lyrics to “Whatta Man,” the Salt-n-Pepa/En Vogue song, and he singled out “And he knows that my name is not Susan” as a particularly clunky line in an otherwise smooth pop song. “Oh, it’s a reference to a Whitney Houston song called ‘My Name Is Not Susan,’” I reminded him. That’s how famous Houston was in the early 1990s—rappers could drop a reference to one of her lesser-known songs, which only peaked at number 20, and still count on audiences knowing it.

The “My Name Is Not Susan” name-check captures Houston’s place in the pop pantheon: Ubiquitous for a time but unable to extend her moment of glory. The news of her death caused more sadness than I usually feel when a celebrity dies, even one whose work means a lot to me. She struck me as a tragic figure on the level of Marilyn Monroe. As with Monroe, audiences fell in love with Houston because she presented an image of uncomplicated sweetness. In the years since Monroe’s death, the pile-up of tragedy kitsch, documentaries, and movies like My Week With Marilyn have complicated that image, but watching her movies is a reminder that her popularity depended on a bubbly charm that lifted her above her stereotyped role as the bimbo. The gap between the image she shared with the world and the vast sadness we assume was her private lot in life is why the image of Marilyn remains indelible.

The tragedy of Whitney Houston feels the same. It’s nearly impossible to match the drug-addled, deeply sad woman we know her to be with the convincing carefree image that helped drive her record sales to stratospheric heights. Houston of the late '80s and early '90s managed to make a good clean time seem fun. In the realm of pop stars, she was the one your parents wanted you to like. Just as Monroe could somehow make lasciviousness seem wholesome, Houston could bop around to a frisky song like “I Want To Dance With Somebody” (which has lines like “I need a man who'll take a chance on a love that burns hot enough to last”) and somehow make you think of nothing more than a friendly pool party.

Being a huge celebrity exaggerates the compromise all human beings make to get along in society. Most of us have a messy inner life that we roll up and leave at home so we can present a pulled-together version of ourselves to the outside world. Despite overwrought claims that social networking and blogging have turned us into a TMI culture, we still control what we show and don’t show the world about ourselves. We don’t like being the target of nasty gossip or having our weaknesses exposed for the outside world to judge. Social networking has become another tool for us to protect and monitor our reputations.

Celebrities have to play the same game, but on steroids. Their triumphs get more attention, but so do their humiliations. Monroe’s drunken singing of “Happy Birthday” to President Kennedy may be more famous than any of her screen roles. Houston’s deranged line “crack is wack” became a national joke. Her descent was like watching someone else’s nightmare of being caught naked in front of a crowd, except Houston’s humiliation had an audience of millions. Even at the end, Houston’s life had echoes of Monroe’s. Both women died alone, naked, apparently from prescription drugs that they took to manage anxiety. The tabloid culture that was just beginning in Monroe’s day has become so mainstream that most of us rarely consider what it must feel like to be on the receiving end of that kind of attention. We forget the human being under the lighting, the costumes, makeup, and fame.

Many of us dream of being famous, imagining it to be a rush of parties and friends, a life where you constantly feel valued and important. For a lot of celebrities, life may be like that. But Houston’s death reminds us of the other side, that being the center of attention can be profoundly alienating. Even standing on a stage in front of an adoring crowd, you can still be all alone.