Adam Polaski

Whitney Houston: How Do We Mourn Celebrities?

Filed By Adam Polaski | February 12, 2012 5:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Living
Tags: Bobby Brown, celebrity gossip, I Have Nothing, Whitney Houston

WhitneyHoustondeath.jpgLast night, I had dinner at a local winery in Ithaca with nine mostly-40ish gay men who had each just finished two or three glasses of sweet, mostly-white wine. The mood was lively and everyone was laughing, discussing the food that had just been placed in front of them and the icy snow that was continuing to complicate traffic patterns outside. Then, just as we began clinking our forks and knives around on our plates, the man to my left, Joe, let out a gasp. "Whitney Houston just died," he said, iPhone in hand. "Dead at 48."

"Wait, what?," one of the younger men at the table asked. "Is this one of those fake Twitter deaths?"

"Nope. USA Today."

Three of the men at the end of the table were engaged in an intense conversation, so they missed the news about Houston's death. Then, noticing the frown on Joe's face and the quiet sense of disbelief that permeated my side of the table, one of the three, Michael, piped up, "Hey - did something happen?"

"Whitney Houston died," Joe said.

"Ohhhh, overdose?," Michael grimaced with a wink. "Or did Bobby hit her?" He laughed, assuming that Joe was kidding.

"No, she actually died," Joe said. "Cause of death unknown." Michael, embarrassed about his failed, tragic cause-of-death gaffe, went pale while his cheeks turned bright red.

The rest of the dinner was somber, with the guys sporadically sharing their memories about Houston's music and her celebrity. Toward the end of the meal, after the Whitney talk had subsided, Joe brought it up again: "Damn, I'm actually pretty sad."

For these men, Whitney Houston was a legend - an icon whose voice played an important role in key moments of their lives. She may not have known any of them personally, but they certainly felt like they knew her - after all, she had been a presence for so much of their adult lives. Gatherings with family and friends wouldn't have been the same without "I Wanna Dance With Somebody," and few love songs could ever hope to compete with "I Will Always Love You."

The scene at the winery stood in stark contrast with my next destination - a party at a friend's house, where 15 theatre students, many of them gay, were drinking and socializing before heading out to a party. I walked into the unmistakable music from Divas Live - THE Divas Live, the debut event from 1998 - and as I greeted my friends, they told me to "shh." Whitney was singing.

The Divas Live clip was followed up by Houston singing the National Anthem, then "I Have Nothing," with every one raising their glass and lip-synching: "I have nothing! Nothing! Nothing! If I don't have youuuuuu..."

It was a party, and for the 20- and 21-year-old students in the room, most of whom were infants when "I Have Nothing" was released, Houston was a novelty, a woman they knew better for her wild appearances on Being Bobby Brown ("Hell to the NO!," several of the students repeated throughout the night, wagging their fingers) than for her wonderful music career and incredible talent.

Both groups of people were affected by Whitney Houston's death, but their connections to the singer and her music differed greatly. For the older crowd, Houston's music constituted important tracks on the soundtracks to their lives. They cried to "I Believe In You and Me," they empowered themselves with "Greatest Love of All," and they danced along to "I'm Every Woman." But for my younger friends, Houston bore artificial significance - someone they had heard about and listened to and understood to be a musical wonder, but who they also knew as very much a cultural joke and celebrity train wreck.

So how should we mourn our celebrities? When our personal or generational experiences and encounters with these public figures vary so greatly, is it even possible to follow a script? Is it even necessary?

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