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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A final requiem for Whitney

Whitney Elizabeth Houston was a pop diva that indeed changed the game.

After selling millions of copies of her rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner, her cousin, Dionne Warwick recalled joking with her, asking, “What’s next? The phone book?”

But Whitney in her prime had that kind of command of an instrument so pure and so powerful that it could move masses to tears and pride with singular notes. She rose to become a national treasure, making her tumble from grace that much more Shakespearean, and her latest comeback effort all the more American. If anything, we love a great come-from-behind redemption story.

She embodied all that modern Western society says a woman should be in order to be beautiful – tall, thin, slender facial features and a light-the-room smile. To boot, she was caramel brown, an even tanner version of that idealized beauty that led to more exotic fantasies. Plus there was the voice that could enrapture.

A pop singer that could actually sing. Imagine that in today’s Auto-Tune music universe.

That was the Whitney that the world mourned last Saturday, as millions of fans, music and pop culture critics as well as pundits from across the globe tuned into the internationally witnessed homegoing services, filing Facebook status updates, tweets on Twitter and news accounts, including this one.

Even when she wasn’t a fixture on a Billboard chart or at an awards show – both synonymous with Whitney for close to three decades – she was still a presence. Easy listening or R&B stations. Proms or anniversaries. And of course, the supermarket tabloids, especially in her later years.

She was peerless vocally for more than a decade, blessed with what many will continue to proclaim as a  “once in a generation” voice. The div-ettes  that rose to prominence in the years since her 1984 emergence all trace their influence to her, days of prancing with hairbrushes to their lips, pretending to be her. They, too, wanted command of a voice that size, poise on stages that seemed so infinite.

Of course, those who knew her more intimately understood her personal struggles, the inner doubts and demons that never stopped whispering in the ear of what turned out to be just a regular Jersey girl. She often tried to smile it away, best her fears by lodging a brave face. When that didn’t work and weariness rose and wore her down, in came the nasty, snappy attitude – a common byproduct of substance abuse.

They were desperate defensive tactics to ward off the 25/8 pressures and costs of celebrity for someone who grew up before the eyes of the world in a pre-set princess mold whose corset demanded perfection.

“We got to give a little back to all our entertainers,” Ray Watson told those assembled at her funeral. For 11 years, he stood by her, as her uncle, bodyguard and friend. And he was among those who discovered her body when she died of an apparent accidental drowning in Beverly Hills on Grammy night 2012.

“They give their lives to you, just so we can have some entertainment,” Watson exhorted. “We have to treat them with love. And stop ridiculing them. Let’s give them some love, other than just a ticket to their show.”

His pleading is not uncommon, particularly after such a death leads to reflections on what more could have been done to recognize and mitigate the pain that was inflicted and throbbing. To save someone.

Her downward trajectory and tragic end hearkened to that of another pop megastar, Michael Jackson.

But unlike MJ, Whitney was packaged and designed for Mainstream America from the start, and then found an embracement in her black roots later in her career. It was the complete 180 of MJ, whose golden pipes and amazing moves dazzled Afro-adorning crowds years before the likes of American Bandstand ever caught wind.

Whitney’s handlers, by contrast, crafted her image with Dick Clark in mind, not Don Cornelius.

That allowed an easier acceptance of the now mythologized tale of her downfall, that she was somehow swept up by a “bad boy” named Bobby Brown, an ill-refined black brute who turned out the lovely damsel and dragged her into his sewer of foul manners and behavior. It made for a more convenient narrative of how a churchgoing, God-fearing girl could wallow so low, as depicted on infamous scenes of the reality show, Being Bobby Brown, and highlighted in confessional interviews with Diane Sawyer and Oprah Winfrey. It also made for plenty of guilty-pleasure reading of the celebrity tabloids and web sites.

Bobby Brown became such the villain that his own pain of losing a woman to whom he was married for 15 years and raised a daughter had been belittled and dismissed. Recently, more thoughtful analysis has emerged, and even sympathy for his version of events that led to him leaving Whitney’s funeral early and abruptly.

There will be an endless series of stories about Whitney, along with more chart-topping hits now that her music has re-entered the Billboard charts and this summer’s release of the film remake of Sparkle will once again bring her to the fore. Biopics, unauthorized biographies, tell-all books – everyone will want to get in on the act, to be a part of the legacy, to grab a bit of pixie dust and glory.

What often can be missed are off-shoot stories, like the response by Newark’s violent street gangs. For years, Brick City has been emblematic of all that is wrong with urban America, with its gangs leading the list. But last Saturday, they called a moratorium. This, they would do, to honor their sister’s homegoing.

From global guardians to corner thugs, the power and impact of a voice, of a life, can be witnessed in the unlikeliest of places, proving that they really are chartless.

Here’s hoping that Whitney finally has found her comfort and joy.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Of politics and polarization: South Carolina edition

The road to Tampa Bay was never going to be dull, not given the cast of characters that have populated this reality show called the 2012 Republican Presidential Primary.

The flavor-of-the-month frontrunners. The seemingly endless debates -- and it's only January, making the August nominating convention seem like a farther stretch than the sands of the Sahara. Then came the deluge of ads descending upon the diminutive early primary states, with all the pull of La Brea tar.

Now that the field has winnowed, Team Romney has been furiously spinning the cloak of inevitability -- and banking on vast amounts of Citizens United-enabled ads in favor of the former Massachusetts governor.  A 1-2-3 order of the early primaries would demonstrate his dominance and claim as sole heir to the GOP's Excalibur, able to slay the Evil One oppressing freedom from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Lurching toward that sword in the stone has been labyrinthine travel for Romney, though. The latest obstacle in this odyssey to unseat the president is the pudgy pugilist Newt Gingrich, self-appointed guardian of the nominating gate.

True, the former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives has had some competition for his current title of Primeval Dark Lord, primarily from a roster of Ricks -- as in Santorum, the former U.S. senator, and Perry, governor of Texas. Both have unabashedly flailed at Obama via proxy: debasing African Americans to the delight of a narrow band of the party.

PA Rick opined among a snowy crowd in Iowa that he'd prefer that black people improve their lives by earning their own money, as opposed to giving them someone else's money. After all, black people don't work, pay taxes toward promoting the nation's general welfare, help provide for the common defense or any of that other lofty idealism.

Texas Rick enjoys time unwinding with a hunt at his Niggerhead Ranch. Sure it's a shameful name, which is why in some alternate universe, a benevolent Perry had that name painted over and banned, though everyone refers to the sprawling expanse by its delightful title. Besides that, the S.C. primary's single-digit candidate seems prone to secessionist overtones, painting pictures of states "under siege," evoking a resurrected Robert E. Lee and the Confederate flag of which he is so fond.

Gingrich, in full attack-dog mode
But then there is Gingrich, the Machiavellian maestro of polished polarization, positioning, and politics.

Undone in the previous contests by shock-and-awe ads funded by super PACs for whose existence he once advocated, he vowed to make South Carolina his beachhead. And the fastest way to mount that GOP bedrock seems to be inserting a knowing wink-nod while lighting the near-translucent racial powder keg.

After all, Gingrich is not only a native Georgian, he's also a student of history, with a focused eye on scorched earth approaches of past demagogues.

His thesis was on full display Monday night, aptly enough the federal holiday commemorating the life and work of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It was the perfect backdrop to pay homage to the arrogant authority embodied by South Carolina's late native son, the nefarious U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond.

Conservative black political analyst became
unwitting political pinata for the get-'em crowd
Referring to Obama as the "food stamp president" just started the party. When veteran newsman Juan Williams dared to ask Gingrich about his stated assertions on black work ethic and sense of responsibility, his dismissal pandered so patently you could almost hear Thurmond applaud from the grave.

Gingrich, the would-be statesman, has embraced the complete caricature of the populist Southern Republican, with flair -- convenient since his conservative credentials remain under fire.  And he was richly rewarded for the reincarnation.

The Myrtle Beach Convention Center erupted when he refused to even restate -- or, as it is known in politi-speak, "clarify" -- his comments. The PeopleMeters rocked off the charts, and those fuzzy feelings are still sending supporters swooning.

"I would like to thank you, Mr. Speaker, for putting Mr. Juan Williams in his place the other night," one woman cooed at a Gingrich gathering on Wednesday. "His supposed question was totally ludicrous."

In his place.

Because that black man -- a veteran newsman, celebrated political analyst, and frequenter of the center-right position -- had stepped out of line. Much like the one in the White House they're working ever so hard to defeat. Surely the next descriptor would be "uppity."

But not from Gingrich. He just stokes the flames. Then, like Nero, watches Rome burn.

That incendiary passion, a momentum shifter, is partly what has Team Romney nervous as they canvass the Palmetto State, with a little more than 72 hours until the primary.  Polls have had Romney in a 10-14 point lead, but the most recent Public Policy Poll showed the so-called frontrunner at 29 percent, with Gingrich snapping at his heels at 24 percent.

Iowa was a squeaker, now termed a split decision, with PA Rick. New Hampshire proved a better outing. That makes South Carolina the crucial third leg of the creaky inevitability trifecta, and that could be slipping away. Gov. Nikki Haley may not prove to be Romney's Lady of the Lake, either. Her early endorsement looks less golden since it's now known that her tea party sheen has dulled and conservative troops in the state are getting restless, if not disillusioned. 

Meanwhile, Gingrich dog whistles and dances his jig, ready to push his poison like Jim Jones, sloshing it among the all-too willing. With a finish of 25 percent or better, he'll fly to Florida, a hellhound on Romney's trail as the Barry Goldwater of the 21st century.