The XX Factor

Who Killed Whitney Houston?

Photo by TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images

On Thursday, my colleague Daniel Engber wrote a fascinating piece over on Slate’s culture blog exploring the commonly held notion that we, the public, are somehow responsible for Whitney Houston’s probably drug-related death. The gist, as Dan puts it, is that we “indulged Houston’s addiction by letting her cash in on her own humiliation … until she crossed a terrible threshold where drug abuse was all she had left—a fallen star’s last chance to grab headlines and make a buck.”

Dan goes on to question this assumption—one he rightly critiques as being somewhat narcissistic on the part of fans—taking us through research that demonstrates how all the attention and, more importantly, money, Houston’s fame afforded actually may have kept her alive far longer than a poorer addict would likely have survived. The implication is that in a fameless vacuum and left to her predisposition for addiction, Houston would have died anyway; our lurid curiosity and infusions of cash actually provided a perverse form of sustenance.

In a purely economic sense, I think Dan is right. The financial support of Houston’s fans (as well as the supportive-if-enabling entourage it funded) surely shielded her from the risks that street junkies face. And of course, if Houston did die from drug-related causes, it wasn’t a fan who put the pills in her mouth. However, there’s an important element missing from Dan’s analysis that does implicate celebrity culture in, if not Houston’s actual death, then certainly her risky position as a perpetually fallen woman: Whitney was a Diva (maybe the diva), and divas, by definition, must always be tarnished.

Some scholars (yes, there are diva scholars) have defined the essence of the diva not merely as a good voice, but as a mix of tragic vulnerability with defiant will. Cultural critic Wayne Kostenbaum has written that “the conviction ‘I will sing!’ begins with a primary alienation and unhappiness.” To be a diva is to be always exuding the pathos of “I Will Survive!” Central to the pleasure that we experience in hearing a diva sing about overcoming heartache and despair is the always looming threat of her failure; if she wishes to maintain her allure, she can never risk appearing to be too happy.

Of course, the unspoken expectation that divas live in a state of personal turmoil doesn’t have to mean overdosing on drugs. A savvy diva-on-the-rise can attain the aura of tragedy by aligning herself with a larger marginalized group, as Lady Gaga has done with bullied gay teens. But regardless of how she comes by it, the hopeful diva had better find something to be constantly overcoming.

Dan is correct that it wasn’t our contributions to Houston’s bank account that caused her addiction or ultimate passing—the truth is more basic than that. Her status as a star was deeply tied to the darker space surrounding her. Some divas manage to maintain the balance, to hold their place in the purgatory between glowing success and abject failure, but Houston did not. And in this light, questions of hitting “rock bottom” (as Dan discusses) become meaningless: There’s no bottom for the diva because there’s really no true top, only a seductive undulation that ends either in martyrdom or irrelevance.

If the public bears any responsibility in this case, it’s in not admitting that a peaceful, well-adjusted Whitney simply wouldn’t have worked. We didn’t just enjoy watching her fall apart; we required it as a condition of our allegiance. And, like any good diva, in the end, she delivered.