Damn it. First Amy. Then Etta. Now, Whitney. Some heavy losses this past year have rocked us. Their bigger than life presence and unearthly talent have transported us to other places. That’s just the way it is with artists of the caliber of Amy Winehouse, Etta James and Whitney Houston. They sing our hopes, our sorrows, our joys, our rage. As women, they speak for us. The intensity and passion that they put into their music makes the singing of their songs a ritual experience for us. They know us. They cry our tears, and suffer our losses, radiate our joy.
Then of course, their personal lives become fodder for public criticism and comment. One day we watch in admiration, the next we shake our heads as their terrible vices are exposed in detail for all of us to ogle. We cringe at their awful imperfections, and some of us may judge. But how would any of us hold up in their position, having to bear the weight of freakish excellence? How would it feel to be known the world over for our abilities, and have to maintain that standard, year after year, despite the inner turmoil, the doubts, the terror we might be feeling? When would we just get to be imperfect or less than stellar, a little confused, or unsure, or maybe needing a break from being brilliant, without someone declaring we’ve lost it, our careers are over, we are yesterday’s news?
The fact is, most people can not bear that kind of pressure. That’s why there are so few who rise to the levels of these extraordinary women. And that is why we expect so much of them, because in some ways, they do it for all of us. They are the embodiment of so many of our secret wishes and desires – to be rich, to be famous, to be loved by millions the world over, to be so talented we can channel a level of the divine into our music, and tap into deep wells of joy and hope that inspire others to live up to that impossible beauty.
Yes, it is impossible, isn’t it. Almost as impossible as comprehending the vast silence that lives on in their absence. The death of a loved one brings a great, yawning emptiness where before there was life – chaotic and at times untenable, perhaps, but vibrant and full and impactful, nonetheless. My heart aches tonight for young Bobbi Kristina. Her life will never be the same. Her mother’s fans around the world may feel pain at having lost someone who moved them deeply with her talent, but Whitney Houston’s daughter’s life has been temporarily shattered, and she now must begin the hard work of putting it back together.
Is it unreasonable to propose that perhaps we need to be gentler with our cherished ones who entertain us out of the doldrums or stresses of everyday life? The ones who set the standards of style? The ones who show us what is possible with the human instrument and spawn generations of copycats, mimicking their unique phrasing and the peculiar ticks and timbres of the sounds they emit? We demand of them what we could never deliver, and then reject them when they do not sustain the impossible promise of perfection.
If we choose to turn our adoration into forgiveness, then we will be able to let these great women rest in peace, while the memories of their profound contributions to the world live on in the gift of music they have left us. Then maybe their surviving loved ones will stand a chance at healing from their personal loss. For we may have indeed said goodbye to another musical superstar, but tonight a daughter is mourning the loss of her mom, a mother is grappling with the death of her child, and countless other family members and friends are grieving deeply for the sister, niece, cousin, friend and woman they loved. Let’s send all of them some love, shall we?