Whitney Houston (RIP) and my disconnect with pop culture

Pop diva Whitney Houston, 48, passed away on Sunday.  I was never a huge fan of her or that approach to singing per se but knew she was a talented singer.  When I read her obituaries, I became curious about reports of disappointing performances in 2009 and thereabouts.  Perhaps, I shouldn’t have got curious because what I read wasn’t pleasant.

Apparently, her voice was shot and raspy and she struggled in her comeback gigs, unable to reach the famous high note on I Will Always Love You.  That wasn’t really so surprising because it happens with age and especially to singers who put such extreme demands on their voice.  Houston wouldn’t have been the first or last singer whose voice failed.

What did sting was how the media tore her to shreds for it.  Footage of fans demanding refunds was played and the line “Houston, we have a problem” repeated.  I can relate to criticism and would always support pointing out of serious flaws.  There is no need to make believe that somebody who once was a great singer was flawless and ageless.  But the sentiment expressed in these reports was as if Houton had cheated audiences by not living up to expectations based on what she could do, what, 13-14 years back.   I remember a fan quote which was along the lines of, “If you charge superstar fees, you must produce superstar results as well.”

Initially, I was in disbelief.  I realized slowly that I have never seen the full blast of pop culture in this country, certainly not in connection with singers.  I have seen archival footage of faltering performances by an aging Talat Mehmood.  I remember a Lata Mangeshkar concert organized in the 90s.  Of course, she was touted to still have the golden throat and all that and I wasn’t buying it for a minute.  It was not the most edifying experience, let’s leave it at that.  S Janaki’s farewell concert was a struggling affair too.

At least all these singers were old enough that people weren’t too disappointed to see their voice fail.  But Mohammed Rafi began to decline when he was in his 40s.  Swarnalatha evidently had some problems through the noughties (which were mercifully not played up) and eventually succumbed to some lung disease.

But so what, I reasoned.   How many times is a singer supposed to prove himself/herself?   A singer’s prowess may fade with the passage of time; surely, people can’t feel cheated about it.  I know they say that a singer is as good as his last performance and I would not suggest that a once-great faltering singer should be somehow accommodated.  But it would surely be no great shock to know that a pop singer in her 40s had lost her most precious gift?

I then paid more attention to that fan’s rant, particularly the first half of it.  Superstar fees.  Apparently,  tickets for that ill fated Australian tour of 2009 cost $200.  I have no clue what was the actual figure.  But I wouldn’t be surprised if the tickets had in fact been priced so steeply.  I could then put the censure she attracted for those performances in perspective.

So, was Houston eventually just a cash cow for promoters of these shows?  Did they not know that the backlash would be severe if her voice didn’t hold up?  Would it not have been prudent for her to soft launch her comeback?  Wasn’t the billing for that ‘comeback tour’ unrealistic if deep down, the people involved knew what she could and couldn’t deliver?

The answer is, not really, it’s not that simple.  Houston may have well known her voice was shot beyond repair.  She had been having problems from 1994 onwards and it was only getting worse with the passage of time.  Perhaps, she needed the money.  Perhaps, the easiest way to make money was to massively promote a comeback trial and book tours banking on her reputation?

And why not, really?  It makes sense when you look at it that way.   The promoters got a lucrative show, she got money she may have needed badly, the media…er, the media got stories to go to town with.  And what of her legacy, what of her integrity then?  Why would a singer want to expose herself to stinging criticism with a hoarse throat?

That probably didn’t figure in the picture for a long time in her career…or that of such mega stars.   Perhaps, the sad inference is Houston just became a pawn in the hands of the industry and the allure of fame and wealth drew her further and further into a path that would take away from her the very thing that made her world famous:  the voice.

If that sounds disgusting, that’s probably what pop culture is all about now.  I am glad in a way that I am not really a fan of any of the reigning popstars because it would be a terrible feeling for me to see one of my favourite artists end up this way.  On the day of Houston’s death, I watched John McLaughlin, Zakir Hussain and Co relive their glorious association dating to the 70s for a contemporary audience…and enthralling us like nothing had changed at all.   Did they ‘deliver’?  I don’t know and I don’t care.   Were we eating out of their hands that night? Absolutely.

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2 Responses to “Whitney Houston (RIP) and my disconnect with pop culture”

  1. pmlighthouse Says:

    Well said. Some of these artists fail to realize their time is over and exit gracefully. They cling on to past, refuse to accept the reality. Reminds me of Michael Jackson.

  2. rothrocks Says:

    Reminded me of Jackson too. A death shrouded in mystery, in both cases.

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