If you’re old enough to remember the 1980s, then there is no question that you often heard Whitney Houston’s voice emanating from radios worldwide. Only a handful of solo artists in the past few decades could claim to be in her league at the height of her powers. Her death this past weekend at the age of 48 was sadly premature.
She was still so beloved that ratings of the Grammys about doubled from last year with about 40 million viewers, second only to 1984 when Michael Jackson won his Thriller awards. People tuned in to hear Jennifer Hudson sing in tribute the Dolly Parton song “I Will Always Love You” that Houston made famous.
Depending on the media outlet, the coverage of Houston’s death ranged from scandalous to respectful. That’s to be expected in the case of any famous person, but the alleged circumstances of her death only heightened the interest. The official cause of death has not been released, but most people assume drugs contributed.
It’s that assumption that has fueled some of the most distasteful coverage, but also some of the most inspiring. An example was “The Last Word” with Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC, which dedicated the entire hour two days after her death. He originally had guests for another segment on politics that he bumped to continue the lofty conversation. Drugs and alcohol were discussed, but in the context of addiction and recovery.
In the mix was the delicate issue of discussing lesbian rumors. I didn’t see any references in broadcast media, but I did see a few online. An article at Advocate.com the day after her death was complementary, especially about her attitude concerning LGBT people. It did include, however, her denial from a 2000 interview of the lesbian rumors. TheDailyBeast.com took it up a notch two days after her death with an entire article dedicated to exploring the lesbian rumors.
We’ve come a long way from the days of Malcolm Forbes, when Michelangelo Signorile reported after he died that Forbes was gay. That was the start of the “outing” controversy, which remains to this day but greatly diminished. I believe it is fair to say that a majority of people think there is nothing wrong with asking celebrities if they’re gay.
My discomfort is not in the asking or discussing as it is in the timing. As the saying goes for jokes about dead celebrities — “Too soon?” — perhaps it’s too soon to be indulging in rumors, or at least a version of events that Houston denied. There will be plenty of time to dive into the juicy details of her life, but could we at least wait until after the funeral?