Whitney Houston’s great comeback

Whitney Houston was a fading musical star when she died suddenly on February 11. Within the past decade, her moments of glory – a Top 10 single in 2001 and a chart-topping album in 2009 – were infrequent and overshadowed by embarrassments such as her short-lived reality TV series with Bobby Brown. But upon her death, she became hot again. As The New York Times reported, her music “rocketed back on the charts and radio,” with a nearly 60-fold increase in album sales and 2.4 million streams of her songs on Spotify (up 4,000 percent from the day before her death was reported). Houston is not the only star whose death has launched a second career, with Amy Winehouse providing another recent example. Which begs the question – why?

I think the answer is this: artists like Whitney Houston become brands for their audiences, and brands have indefinite shelf lives. The content they create – in Houston’s case, music – is but a small part of their brand persona, which is perpetuated through news coverage of their lives (whether positive or negative) and chatter on social media (Houston’s death was reported initially on Twitter). And, as well stated by Business Insider, when stars die young, they seal in our minds an all-important element of any brand: their visual identity, forever preserved the way we remembered them (unlike say, Mick Jagger, who destroyed his own brand as a sexual icon by simply growing old).

When Amy Winehouse’s death triggered her own career comeback, I asked a similar question. I uncovered the following answer from blogger Ryan O’Connell – an analysis that rings true as I consider the rebirth of Whitney Houston:

In American culture especially, we worship celebrities. They’re our version of royalty and I suppose that’s why we take celebrities’ deaths so personally . . . Americans love to tear celebrities down . . . and then we love to bring them back up. We love a comeback even more than a downfall. And what’s perhaps most tragic about Winehouse and the reason why so many people flipped out over her death is that she never got her happy ending. We were never able to rehabilitate her and put a bow on her next album. That’s what we wanted most of all, right? To see her happy and healthy? But it’s hard to tell if those wishes were ever genuine. It’s hard to discern whether or not we truly gave a shit about Amy Winehouse or if we just needed her to fit the typical celebrity narrative.

Like any brand persona, Whitney Houston’s belongs to her audience to shape as we see fit. In a provocative Slate article, “Who Killed Whitney Houston?” J. Bryan Lowder even suggests that Houston played the role of troubled diva that her audience expected of her. “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,” he writes. “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.”

Today she’s delivering by assuming another role the public loves from a brand persona: the great comeback. Had she lived, it’s unlikely she could have fulfilled this role. Her once pristine voice was ravaged by drug abuse, and her recent live shows had earned her less-than-stellar reviews in the United Kingdom and Australia. But now that Houston is gone, her audience need not be distracted by such inconvenient realities. Her comeback belongs to us to create as we see fit.