A feminist take on media response to Whitney Houston’s death

Something’s been bothering me about all the media coverage of Whitney Houston’s death. I wasn’t sure what it was until I read Susie Bright’s column about it. This hits on the nail on the head, for me at least.

“Women in pop culture are particularly framed with this “poor little prima donna who destroyed her talent” garbage. When great male musicians die, it’s unusual to have their substance issues splayed forth in the obit headline. Is that what happened when George Harrison died? The Beatles, every one of them, could’ve given Whitney Houston a clinic in drug abuse. When Keith Richards dies, are they going to lead with “heroin destroyed his career”? Why was Billie Holliday’s love affair with heroin so tragic, but Miles Davis and John Coltrane … not so much? Why is Sinead O’Conner a nutcase but Van Halen is just a darling bunch of naughty rockers? Why is Madonna’s mental state on the front page every day, but not Justin Beiber’s? Fuck that noise.”

For more, see here.

9 thoughts on “A feminist take on media response to Whitney Houston’s death

  1. It’s all part and parcel of the (intentionally) self-defeating War on Drugs, m’dear Tree Frog. Drugs are big business. 147 years later, so is racism. (Readers, please don’t get my descriptions of “is” mixed up with my “oughts”. Of course racism is vile.)

    Painting addictions as a *character flaw* that’s only prevalent among certain groups–namely those traditionally believed to be more prone to posession by incubi than oh, rich white men of European ancestry–allows said Rich White Doodz to keep pumping money into witch hunts, rather than social programs. Better to take a paternalistic attitude to those ghetto girls. \That way they won’t be stealing any jobs from teh menz :-P

  2. Oh, and any woman-especially woc-who does beat the odds and become wealthy and famous is never allowed to enjoy it. People are always following them around trying to find evidence that they ‘cheated’ for their fame. Even Oprah gets hated on.

  3. I was thinking the UK’s Daily Mail was an equal opportunity offender, but I had a look and it really is mostly concerned with female celebrities in their weaker moments. At the same time, I’m not sure about whether really damaging additions are not noticed in male stars. James Brown might be a good exception. Con-something-or-other West has been greatly called out for bad behavior. The lead guy on the Beach Boys (Brian whatever) has had a documented decline. There were awful arrest pictures of Nick Nolte. No one was keeping very quiet about Presley’s decline; Glen Campbell was a notorious problem, and his current decline into alzheimer’s is widely discussed. Willie Nelson is a ship wreck that lots of people are very sad about.

    The thing is, Miles Davis produced great jazz throughout his career, but Houston’s voice was shot. She lost its clarity and range.

  4. This is very sad news. May she R.I.P.

    I would be interested to know if what Susie Bright says is true or is just a subjective anecdotal impression. I suppose someone could do an empirical comparison. I would argue that the examples she’s given aren’t very good comparisons to Whitney Houston on this specific point.

    The “tragically destroyed her talent” media narrative works well in Whitney’s case, though I’m not necessarily saying it is deserved. But think about it. Whitney died before age fifty. Her period of addiction struggle lasted a long time, overlapped her longest periods of professional underachievement and were plausibly one of their chief causes. She did not outlive her drug addiction by very long (if at all). She did not end her career with a sustained period of professional flourishing. Her virtuoso ability showed signs of premature degradation. The list goes on… to it, we might add the fact that she died under circumstances that preliminarily lend themselves (rightly or wrongly) to the inference that drug abuse may relate to the cause of death. If we took, say, five male musicians, and four other female musicians in addition to Whitney, who present a broadly similar profile, and compared the media reporting right after their deaths, I wonder if we would see the gender disparity Susie Bright is talking about. It’s possible; I don’t know. But I do think the examples she gives don’t really support her thesis.

    Let’s start with the Beatles. If I’m not mistaken, George’s hard drug use ceased in the 80’s (pre-Traveling Wilburys, I thought) and he was already easing into semi-retirement; not counting the cigarettes that probably gave him lung cancer, drugs don’t seem to have had tragic consequences for him. Paul doesn’t seem to have been much into hard drugs, at least after the 60’s, and drugs don’t seem to have impaired his ability to flourish as a working artist in his long and successful post-Beatles career. John’s drug use was extensive, but I don’t know if addiction struggles would have affected his career like Whitney’s even if other obvious tragedies hadn’t intervened. Ringo’s long-term drug of choice was alcohol, but I thought he kicked the addiction a long time ago, and anyhow no one will believe that drugs sabotaged Ringo’s career as a rock superstar.

    I don’t know what Keith Richards’ obituaries will read – though I’m sure they’re already written and on file in the offices of all the major papers. I wouldn’t be surprised if they mention drug use, but would he have gone on to realize potential like Whitney’s *but for* the drugs? (Also, he might never die.)

    Billie Holiday was never able to definitively kick drug addiction; her related legal troubles severely hampered her later career (she lost her cabaret license, which restricted her ability to do the live performances on which she depended professionally), and she kept drinking and drugging herself right into an early grave, penniless. Miles Davis’heroin addiction occurred during a relatively short stage near the beginning of his career; after kicking it he went on to win Grammys for four successive decades after that. Coltrane’s heroin addiction did adversely affect him professionally in the first half of his career, and its lingering effects on his body may have contributed to his early death roughly a decade after supposedly kicking the habit, but he seems to have overcome it and in fact recorded most of his albums afterwards. So it’s understandable why people would regard Billie’s substance abuse in more tragic terms than Miles’ or Trane’s.

    I can think of reasons why Sinead O’Connor might be considered a nutcase by some (her well-publicized struggles with diagnosed mental illness would be among them). I’m not sure if I can confirm, much less account for, the comment about Van Halen. Eddie van Halen’s drug use is well known and has almost certainly taken its toll, but I don’t know enough about his habits, or his or the band’s career arc, to be able to say that they may fruitfully be compared to Sinead O’Connor’s.

    Is “Madonna’s mental state on the front page every day”? What newspapers does Susie Bright read? At any rate, I can think of a host of reasons why Madonna’s personal life would get more newspaper space than Justin Bieber’s, not the least of which is that relatively few (as compared to Madonna) of the people who write, edit, publish and/or read newspapers know or care much about Justin Bieber at this historical juncture.

    In sum, the contrast Susie Bright draws about the media treatment of these figures (to the extent her depiction of their treatment is accurate) seems on the whole readily attributable to factors other than gender.

  5. This is nothing more than an item of anecdotal evidence, but for what it’s worth: drug abuse among male jazz musicians is a common part of the narratives of their lives, especially if it was such as to cut their lives short. Charlie Parker, Fats Navarro, and Bill Evans are all good examples. At least in Evans’ case, his use of drugs has been used as a reason to treat his artistic contributions as suspect by those who don’t enjoy his music. And, just to drive home how much the drug abuse of (male) jazz musicians is an object of scrutiny, one of the best known facts about Clifford Brown is that he died young *despite* not being a drug user, which should give some idea of how much drugs were part of the jazz musician narrative at the time.

  6. Yeah, I don’t think I agree that there’s a gendered pattern either. Chet Baker, Johnny Cash, and Ray Charles, geez, those three are pretty much the story o’ drugs, and in Chet’s case, like Whitney’s, a story of a badly foreshortened career. Susie Bright’s list seems selective, although I appreciate the spirit of her point: Why this standard, why here and not there?

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