The Tragedy and Comedy of Whitney Houston

There are three things I know about Whitney Houston:

  1. Whitney Houston was incredibly talented, possessing probably the best voice in the history of recorded popular music.
  2. Whitney Houston had a fervent desire to know god, love god, and serve god, to paraphrase the Baltimore Catechism.
  3. Whitney Houston was a complete mess.

Thus, we have the elements of the tragedy and comedy of Houston’s life and career.

Before I discuss Houston proper, I have to preface my argument by discussing Umberto Eco’s views on tragedy and comedy. Eco believed that tragedy and comedy are two sides of the same coin, as both exist to reaffirm societal rules. Tragedy is characterized by a tragic hero with whom we identify with, and whom has a sincere desire to do the right thing, so to speak. Inevitably, the tragic hero transgresses a major societal rule and meets an untimely end, and while the viewer feels empathy for the hero’s plight, the denouement of the tragedy reaffirms the importance of upholding the rule that was transgressed. The prototypical tragedy is Oedipus Rex, where the titular character unknowingly murders his father and marries his mother. No matter how we feel about the inherent nobility of Oedipus’ character or the seeming unfairness of fate, the viewer understands that the incest taboo can’t be broken, not even for a “noble hero.”

In comparison, comedy centers around a “buffoon” who transgresses minor societal rules. Unlike the noble hero of tragedy with whom we empathize with, we perceive the comedic buffoon as inferior to ourselves, which allows us to feel superior at his or her sufferings. “The Three Stooges” are perhaps the best example of Eco’s definition of comedy. While we delight in watching the Stooges break the rules of etiquette, we also understand that these rules, minor as they are, are necessary for civilized living.

This brings us to Whitney Houston. The death of Whitney Houston was undoubtedly a tragedy, for herself, her family, and the music world at large. Much of the coverage of her death focused on her problems with drug abuse, how someone who did seem to “almost have it all,” to quote from one of her songs, could throw it all away to become a common junkie. Houston’s talent made her noble, but her addictions made her “human, all too human,” the fatal flaw that led to her downfall. Her death underscored the larger societal rule of “don’t do drugs/drugs are bad for you” in the most blatant way possible. If you want an indepth report of what years of chronic drug abuse can do to a person, read Whitney Houston’s autopsy report:

Click to access houston,%20whitney_report.pdf

The detail of the autopsy report that always sticks out for me is the revelation that almost all of Houston’s upper teeth had been replaced by a “full arch maxillary dental prosthesis.” This is probably due to the fact that crack cocaine/freebase is very acidic and does a great deal of damage to one’s oral health. Given that Houston abused cocaine in this manner for 25+ years, it’s amazing she had any natural teeth left. “Crack is whack” doesn’t even begin to cover it.

And speaking of “Crack is whack,” that brings us to the comedic side of Houston’s death. Because, let’s face it, her behavior during the 2000s was erratic and often hilarious, albeit unintentionally so. The reason why “Crack is whack” became a punch line is because Houston, upon being asked by Diane Sawyer whether the rumors that she had gone to rehab for being addicted to crack cocaine, was more offended that she was being accused of doing a “poor person’s drug” than the insinuations that she was an drug addict in the general sense. I guess if you smoke crack while wearing a mink coat, as Houston supposedly did, somehow makes it “classier”?

Then there’s the whole “Being Bobby Brown” debacle, which gave us this immortal clip that was the favorite of the dearly departed “The Soup”:

The critics may say that “Being Bobby Brown” was a low point in American pop culture history, but I say it was the only really reality show that was ever “real” in any sense, being an unscripted chronicle of Bobby Brown and Whitney Houston’s mutual descent into drug induced madness.

Then there is this great clip from the also dearly departed MadTV, and once you see it, you’ll want to quote it all the time:

Debra Wilson’s portrayal of Houston is great, because it gets all of the nuances: the random god-talk, the ever present (and presumably drug-induced) paranoia, the wigs, the dysfunctional relationship with Bobby Brown, the fact that all the dances in her videos were exactly the same, etc. I have no idea why so many people claim women aren’t funny, because this is hilarious. Ultimately, all of the comedy that was produced at Houston’s expense served to reinforce the same “Don’t do drugs/drugs are bad for you” rule the more serious tragic accounts did, with the added message of “If you do drugs and act erratically, people will mock you.”

While Houston was certainly not the first and won’t be the last celebrity to die from drugs, it seems like her struggle was more public than most. She was not able to be a functioning drug addict, and it seems like in the late 1990s and most of the 2000s, Houston became a “full-time addict.” The advent of cell phone cameras also made it easier to take impromptu photos of Houston at her worst, from pics of her looking disheveled and high at Atlanta gas stations to the infamous “Whitney’s Crack Den!” pictures than ran in the National Enquirer. Had River Phoenix died in the same manner that he did today, I have no doubt that there would have been twenty people filming him convulsing on the sidewalk with their cell phones. Whether through a tragic lens or a comedic lens, the underlying rule that led to Houston’s death remains intact.