The Grammys last night led off with a prayer delivered by noted religious thinker LL Cool J. “For me, the only thing that feels right begins with a prayer — for a woman who we loved. For our fallen sister, Whitney Houston,” he said. “Today our thoughts are with her mother, her daughter and all of her loved ones. We are truly blessed to be touched by her beautiful music.” It was a nice moment. But it was also a problematic moment, because the same industry that was now bowing its head in prayer enabled Houston to become the troubled addict who died over the weekend.
Houston got her start as a middle class religious gospel singer in her church. She knew celebrities and grew up around them – people like Dionne Warwick and Aretha Franklin were a part of her childhood. Her mother, Cissy, was a performer. While she was still a teenager, she was offered a recording contract, which her mother turned down because she thought Whitney was too young to handle it.
Once she did sign a recording contract at age 20, she quickly skyrocketed to international fame. There’s no need to recount her style or grace – she was uniquely talented and beautiful. And she was doing good for the world, too, by supporting Nelson Mandela and standing up against apartheid, by founding a foundation for children, by meeting with President George H.W. Bush to talk about youth leadership. And then, of course, there was her incredible performance at Super Bowl XXV, which turned the Star Spangled Banner into an actual pop hit (it made the Top 20 on the US Hot 100). Her movie career took off, too.
It all started to go sour when she married Bobby Brown. Brown was an abusive character – his first child with Houston was already his fourth overall. Brown was allegedly a habitual drug user, and got Houston into it, too – marijuana was actually found in their suitcase in Hawaii, although charges were dropped. Houston was fired from the Oscars in 2000 for erratic behavior.
Where were all the “close friends” we saw on the Grammys last night during all of this? Why weren’t they telling her to get in touch with her roots? Where was Al Sharpton, who yesterday came out to tout his close relationship with the late star? Where were her producers, her managers, the people who had gotten rich off of her?
Where were they when Bobby Brown talked her into doing the reality series Being Bobby Brown, which the Hollywood Reportercalled “undoubtedly the most disgusting and execrable series ever to ooze its way onto television“? Where were they when her drug use was so bad that she was admitting on national television that she had habitually used cocaine with Brown?
She was never able to recover from her collapse in the 1990s; her religious upbringing went by the wayside, apparently, as she lost herself in fame. And yet there were the Hollywood stars and executives – the same people who apparently partied even as her body lay a few rooms over in the Beverly Hilton Hotel – claiming kinship with her, and citing religion in the process.
Hollywood wants to have it both ways. They want to be able to cite religion when it’s convenient, but they want to ignore it when it crimps their party lifestyle. Houston was responsible for her own decisions, of course – but the prevailing attitude seems to be, “were we our sister’s keeper?” And as usual, the answer was no.