Whitney Houston, the NFL, and cultural imperialism

By A.G. Gancarski | February 13, 2012

21 years ago Whitney Houston recorded what was to be her last top-ten hit, “The Star Spangled Banner,” at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. Her version of the national anthem went to #1 in the weeks after the Super Bowl as radio programmers filled the airwaves with patriotic, “support the troops” bombast; it re-charted at #6 just after 9/11/2001.  A time which seems like a lifetime ago now, and that is literally true for the singer herself, dead at 48.

In the words of music promoter Jason Lewis, “Whitney Houston’s talent could not be held captive in the corporate packaging that her music was often wrapped in.” A remarkable, if revisionist thing to say, given how aggressively Whitney was marketed from the outset of her career. When she was first unleashed on the pop music scene, early publicity photos of Whitney featured an almost bleached, peach-orange hue; she was pushed as the pop singer with soul music pipes, her ethnicity downplayed in the spirit of the times. Her arrangements were major key, her remixes relentlessly cheerful. Yet even in the early videos, like “How Will I Know”, with an actor dressed as half-bride/half-groom, there was a sense of duality bordering on the bipolar. It seemed innocent and playful enough early on, but underneath it all was a sense of tension. Deep down, we knew she wouldn’t be cute forever. And that she would be degraded at every turn as her career descended into its final, unsavory coda.

It was appropriate that ABC news broke into their “Charlie Brown Valentine’s Special” with the news of Whitney’s demise. What better way to introduce children to heartbreak than the spectacle of Charlie waiting for a Valentine that never came, juxtaposed with this career of one of the great voices of the 20th century, long since descended into self-parody, addiction, and insanity. The ABC News guy sounded beyond apologetic, issuing a caveat that some viewers would be hearing about this during World News Tonight, and of course the details of the death weren’t released. At that point, I wondered: how do parents explain Whitney Houston to their children without demystifying the whole pop star image? Say what you will about Britney and LiLo, they’re still alive, which is more than you can say about Whitney and MJ, who overdosed like Elvis and so many others.

Why did Whitney turn to heavy drug use? Opportunity, availability, and affordability. By 1991 when she performed the Star Spangled Banner, with its British drinking song melody, at the Super Bowl, she was approaching the peak of her career, a year away from “The Bodyguard” and her huge cover of “I Will Always Love You”. Whitney was, for better or worse, the face of a popular music industry that largely had lost touch with the music-buying public. Most of her singles—don’t ask me about her albums—were mid-tempo schlock, perfect for mall walking or trying on a new pair of Zubaz or Z Cavarricci. The reaction to Whitney being pushed on radio listeners arguably paved the way for Cobain and all of those who came in his wake.

Her performance of the national anthem blew up the charts during both US invasions of Iraq and Houston herself became an ambassador for cultural values, obliged to say things like “crack is wack” in interviews. But we all knew what was up. A few years after her anthem topped the charts for a second time the Iraq war was going none too well—and neither was Whitney herself, as her reality show with Bobby Brown—a drug-fueled spectacle like nothing except the Real Housewives—indicated. Her self-destruction, like that of Anna Nicole, drove ratings. And regarding her recent comeback? All reports suggest it never would have flown.  After a hard 48 years she radiated none of the vitality and freshness of her youthful personae.

Those who saw the Grammies the other night know how quickly the music industry rushed to contextualize her as a fallen Goddess of her genre. Yet when her death was announced, jokes about her cocaine usage and damnations of on-again/off-again lover and 80s R&B giant Bobby Brown abounded on Twitter and Facebook. People rushed to condemn her as yet another fallen junkie until reports came out that she had died from a lethal and legal cocktail of Xanax and alcohol; pill bottles littered the bathroom in which she died. Once it became known that she had died from legal, Big Pharma-approved products, the jokes ceased and the encomium surge started in earnest.

People liked to lampoon Whitney Houston’s addiction. But her drug problems were ironic in a sense her deriders didn’t intend, given that she was objectified and turned into a commodity to satisfy America’s own addictions. To verse/chorus/verse pop songs. To unthreatening, mass-marketed versions of female sexuality. And, in the case of her rendering of the national anthem, to war.

In the run up to Gulf Wars I or II, not many people stopped to think about why we were defending the prerogatives of repressive Kuwaiti sheiks. Likewise, the typical consumer of Whitney Houston’s music didn’t want to think too deeply about what they were consuming or the conditions under which the product was produced. Her music “had a good beat and you could dance to it.” And that was enough.

No one stopped to think, until the hits faded from the radio, about the tragic wreck Houston’s life was. Likewise, until it became all too clear that Asian land wars had consequences no one cared too much about those wars, except insofar as they wanted to silence dissent and solidify the Manichean narrative common to all US military expeditions.

Thus, it is appropriate that Whitney Houston’s last hit would be the national anthem, which has been used as a call to arms and unity time and again, and as a reprieve from the kind of critical thinking that might have stopped the mess in Iraq—twice—before it was too late and we marshaled blood and treasure in the service of that war’s aims. Her music was intended not to be thought about too deeply. Heavy-rotation, but intellectually light. And when her purpose was exhausted she was to be forgotten. Or returned to her golden years image, the one we are intended to remember by the people who market her as aggressively in death as they did in life.

Her music now tops the charts, just as Michael Jackson’s did after his demise. We don’t remember why she recorded the national anthem. Or the carnage it was used to sell—twice. Just like athletes, pop stars are used up and then left for dead. They exist to promote a transient agenda, and the stars themselves—however iconic they are for a time—become faded memories, eventually not existing at all. But for now, Houston is all the rage on iTunes, and for the industry, that’s the greatest love of all.

Photo: Featureflash / Shutterstock.com