When I heard about Whitney Houston’s death I was reminded of the many ways society sends destructive messages to artists and creative people.
One message is “you’re only as good as your last hit.” In many news reports I heard that Whitney was disappointed and down that her last album did not get the critical acclaim to which she was accustomed. Imagine topping the charts with hit after hit for decades, and then after coming out of isolation and self-destruction you don’t top the charts in the way you once did. She did well, but her performance wasn’t as meteoric as it had been in the past. The meta-message “only as good as your last hit” is reinforced.
Another message is that “unless you knock my socks off, you are not legit.” Her voice had undeniably changed, she could no longer soar in the same way, but now her voice was filled with edges and qualities that reflected despair, heartache, and the desire to overcome it all. She had lost notes, but had developed strength and gravitas. The qualities in her voice reflected that she was older and seeking to find herself. Unfortunately we are living in a culture of competitive contests, instead of curious listening and warm receptions for the stories in all our voices.
Last of all Whitney modeled “smiling on the outside, while crying on the inside.” I wish she had had support to overcome her addiction, to deal with fame and disappointments, because when you reach that far out with your amazing gifts, you also may have what I call “an upper limit,” which tries to limit how much joy and happiness you allow yourself to get back. She gave so much, but somehow did not receive all of the support and love she really needed and deserved. She soldiered on, but probably had much pain and grief that was difficult to acknowledge.
I understand why with Whitney’s death so many people are writing about how addiction destroys. For instance, there is a great article in Forbes, A Cautionary Tale, reflecting on how her passing provides an opportunity and reminder to reach out and support those we care about who are struggling with demons of their own. As a society, I hope we can learn to value the magic of all our artists, with their ups and downs, and learn to curb our critical impulses to destroy, as we move into a culture of ongoing appreciation and support for the ample creative resources that lie in each of us, which truly heal us all. That would be the greatest love of all.