a thousand words

Friday, May 28, 2010



I’VE BEEN THINKING HARD about how to sum up the ’00 decade. The first ten years after the turn of a century often portends what the rest will be like. For example, from 1900 to 1909 we saw: first flight, the first car, the first affordable electronic gadget (Kodak's $1 Brownie camera), the theory of relativity, the first movie and the NAACP. By the end of the century, we had space flight, rapid transit, the ipod, the atom bomb, Hollywood and a black politician who would become President.

This new century is off to an auspicious start but I think the inventions of the last ten years are not the best way to chart where we came from and where we are going. Instead, the life of one person parallels the themes of the last decade and perhaps the future of this nation and the world.

Whitney Houston.

In 2000, Whitney Houston had a string of hit records, successful movies and signed a historic recording deal worth 100 million dollars. Her next album, Just Whitney sold over 3 million copies.

That same year, America had just ended the tenure of a popular president. The economy was healthy, we had been at peace for most of the century and no one worried about that guy from Texas named Bush. Al Gore seemed primed to become President.

But Whitney had married Bobby.

So Bush became President.

In 2001, The World Trade Center was attacked and everything in America and the world changed.

Whitney’s marriage to Bobby Brown started its fall down the rabbit-hole of drugs and humiliating public behavior.

President Bush started not one but two wars and America was plunged into the abyss. The economy fell apart and thousands of people were killed. Politicians failed their constituents and the people in turn did nothing but point fingers at each other over who could be the most myopic about their country.

Whitney and Bobby got themselves a reality show and the disaster was put on display for all to see. The once “good girl” and her husband were displayed as the stereotype: “What does a black person do with a million dollars? She buys a million dollars worth of dope.” It was a tragedy, just like the war and “crack is whack” was right up there with “weapons of mass destruction” as pathetic anthems of the day.

Whitney spiraled into addiction, lost weight, looked a mess and sang even worse. She tore herself to pieces before our eyes.

America also became unhinged. We spent more money than we had, Wall Street stole even more and we attacked each other rather than admit that our excesses did us in. “Forget the slaughter of innocents, the oppression of workers and the theft of freedom, just don’t let the gays get married!”

Late in the decade, Whitney divorced Bobby and America supported “The Surge.” Both were pitiable attempts to end bad behavior with smoke and mirrors and no real truth or conviction.

But Bobby wasn’t Whitney’s problem.

And the Surge wasn’t America’s answer.

So Whitney struggled through several failed comebacks while denying the real problem. Her fans (myself included) got fed up and just turned away.

The Surge lessened hostilities but we denied the real problem. We stopped reporting deaths and bombings and turned our attention to anyone who had screwed up their life and got a TV show.

Then finally, Whitney cleaned up, gained some weight and re-presented herself to America. We hoped that she had changed.

America set Obama’s promise of hope and change against McCain’s “stay the course” philosophy.

McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate.

Whitney went on Oprah to face her fans.

Both actions were pitiful, desperate attempts to fool a public who would not be fooled anymore. They both failed.

Obama was elected President. America and the world had reason to believe things would get better.

Whitney released I Look To You, her first #1 album since The Bodyguard and while not a mega success; it is solid and a step in the right direction and we have reason to think things will get better.

So what are the lessons of Whitney and America?

In this first decade, we saw the elevation of individualism over compassion, profit over quality and technology over thought. This toxic mix gave birth to the unholy creatures of talentless fame, hateful religion, invidious sexuality, regressive self-hatred and media whore-ism.

And yet, we persevere.

We even thrive, because the one thing that was true in the last century has been true in all of them: the human spirit is indomitable. Society bends but it never breaks and for this we can all have hope-- for no change.

In 2010, Whitney will release a 25th Anniversary edition of her first album, celebrating her career.

America will release universal health care.

Let us hope they are both successful.