Y’all can be mad at Bobby Brown (I’m mad at him too). But this guy is behind the music. I’ve always thought of him as a toxic blend of Mephistopheles, Pygmalion, and Svengali, simmering in a stew of capitalism, pushing the results through the cold press of race.
Whitney was his queered Elvis, a black Barbie for white audiences. He turned that magnificent instrument into a cash register, and I know he did her no good when the body blows of betrayal were thrown at her for becoming “(White) America’s First Black Princess.”
So she tried to crossover back and soothe that pain by leapfrogging over her solid black middle-class upbringing into the better-marketed version of authentic blackness: bad boys and crack. Rehab? Please. The only group therapy circle I can imagine Whitney getting real in includes Cher, Lena Horne, and Tina Turner. And they could have schooled her well on kicking bad boys to the curb and claiming your own life and art.
I’m not gonna lie, I was frightened when I heard that young Alicia Keyes was under this man’s wing. But I have some hope for her because when she broke down, she fled to Egypt, not drugs. And she has her own record label and has surrounded herself with people who care about her as an artist, and music as art. If her pop career goes to hell, she still has a chance for solid ground under her feet. Whitney – a huge gift squandered to line some pockets. No sweet spot to call her own, when the lights were off and the audience gone. A hurting soul vampired and sneered at. And yes, Diane Sawyer and Oprah Winfrey, I’m also looking at you.
Why do the Elvises, the Michaels, and the Whitneys not make it past 50? Part of it, obviously, is that they’ve worn out their bodies. Whether they took drugs or not, the tension of performing race and art in a way that deliberately twists who you are and what you know, or at least suspect, marketed to the unexamined expectations of millions of strangers, the weirdness of getting rich from it, the estrangement from anything like normal life, and the encouragement to keep the spectacle going, accelerated to breakneck speed by the Internet that never sleeps, collapses mere mortals. Perhaps it’s more a wonder they made it close to 50. Add in the drugs as attempts to manage the crazy, and, well, funerals. And tributes. And meditations like this one, an unfinished thought about art and commerce, and race and commerce, and spectacle and commerce, and complicity and shame and sorrow, for what was, and for what might have been…
Another friend lost her father yesterday. Yet another friend is worried about hers, who has been in the hospital with a suspected stroke. Watching “Downton Abbey” last night, they honored the moment WWI ended, at 11 a.m. on November 11. My dad died on November 11 of last year. When my friend whose father died posted, “Thanks Daddy,” on Facebook, I burst into tears at all that meant, for her, for me, for now being at that time in life when funerals just might outnumber marriages and births. It’s sobering and awakening and saddening and enlivening all at the same time. Mostly, it’s a wake-up call to the ending and the present…to be present for each other’s grief in a live way, to be present in one’s own life because this really is all there is, and what’s the richest way to live it in any given moment?
I was thinking on the bus yesterday how superficial, if well-meant, my words of condolence were for others facing the depths of grief, before actually experiencing it myself. I had grieved over the end of love relationships and torn friendships; grieved in sections, steps, moments my mother’s slow walk with Alzheimer’s, although that one has a lot of anger in it; and wept wildly at the death of my cat-companion of 12 years. But when my grandmother died when I was in my 20′s, my emotions were still wrapped in enough moving blankets from childhood to feel sad, but not overwhelmed.
When my dad died, unexpectedly and after a short phone call when it sounded like everything would be ok, I felt the full force of grief and loss. I was partly functioning, trying to find a room for my brother in Kingston, helping as much as I could from afar, but I was truly disabled most of the time, in physical pain, in a world both brighter in its details and darker in its outlines. I could not be alone. On the second day, I had a less than ten minute walk from one place with a friend to the next, and I had to call a friend to be with me on the phone while I made the walk. He had also recently been dealt body blows by life and death. We talked about the poetry of Leonard Cohen and the need to say no to anything that made the demands of performance that so much of daily life turns out to be, and that it was not just a need but perhaps a way of life.
Well, maybe I’m adding that last bit. But once the sheer raw aching keening of loss has torn its way through one’s body, how do you return to skating on the surface? It has not been that long for me. We are coming up on the third month without my dad, and we were close in a funny way, not in the everyday of childhood and growing up, but as acquaintances who made it a point to get to know each other, forgive what couldn’t be helped any more, and find our way to real talk and unburdenings, infrequent but in depth when it happened. And still, for two people who spent no more than four years of the last fifty in each other’s company, it nearly killed me when he died.
And three months later, I cry more easily, at loss like my friend’s, but also at sunrise, a daytime owl, someone on the bus handing tissues to someone else who is crying. I laugh more easily, too. I am more patient with myself and others. I perform much less well. I imagine more brightly, and move more quickly to make the imagined real. I am a little estranged from who I was before, and feel sorry for what passed for knowing and being in her day-to-day. The curtain between here and there grows thinner, and is no longer out of sight. It is stretched like a long transparent canvas, with no beginning or end, along an empty shore. I see it dancing in the wind, and how easily it tears, and desperately want to stay on this side of it, feeling my way in this new landscape of ancient sands.
The fascination of what’s difficult
Has dried the sap out of my veins, and rent
Spontaneous joy and natural content
Out of my heart. There’s something ails our colt
That must, as if it had not holy blood
Nor on Olympus leaped from cloud to cloud,
Shiver under the lash, strain, sweat and jolt
As though it dragged road-metal. My curse on plays
That have to be set up in fifty ways,
On the day’s war with every knave and dolt,
Theatre business, management of men.
I swear before the dawn comes round again
I’ll find the stable and pull out the bolt.
– William Butler Yeats