The two Whitney Houstons met in media

Mother Jones

When Whitney Houston got a reality show, two media narratives about her collided, writes Rachel Sklar. The first was the Whitney carefully groomed as the next Aretha by Arista honcho Clive Davis, the gal-next-door in a gown whose voice could dive-bomb from a melisma into a growl. The other was, well, we know who the other Whitney was.

Whitney Houston appeared on the cover of "Seventeen" magazine as an 18-year-old.

How does this tale differ from any other celebrity defrocking? There'll never be any redemption, obviously, no point at the end to the VH1 special when Houston will say her upcoming post-rehab LP will be her best album yet, but Sklar says Houston's descent can't help but bring up issues of race and media: "If Whitney the onetime ingenue had been the perfect, wholesome, pristine and lovely "Seventeen"-model persona necessary to break through as a black woman in a white media world, this Whitney was the complete opposite: a caricature of how a black person falls from grace."

Would the dissonance between the two narratives be as clanging in a world with Twitter, Sklar wonders?

It's not a bad question, even if it reminds me of the most painful future-of-media discussion in recent memory: How would Twitter have changed coverage of 9/11?

To give Sklar's piece some context, look at Richard Prince's excellent forensic work on how news of Houston's death broke on Saturday night, and how it played as a local story in Los Angeles and in Newark, N.J. Some newspapers struggled to front the story for Sunday's editions, Prince notes, and at least one fan grumbled that the radio station in her town seemed oblivious to the story.

And the Grammys, once the place where the music industry's favorite narratives came to party for the cameras? As Washington Post pop critic Chris Richards noted, a brief Houston tribute was overshadowed by Chris Brown, who "hopped up and down a terraced stage like a pop-locking Q*bert, trying to dance his way to America’s forgiveness. He was arrested for assaulting his then-girlfriend Rihanna on the eve of the 2009 Grammys, but his acceptance speech after winning best R&B album included no act of contrition. When Chris Brown is getting more airtime than Whitney Houston, there’s a serious problem."

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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