Within the span of a single week, a 53 year old diva stunned the world by performing a thirteen minute non-stop song and dance visual overload of a production number for the half-time performance of the Superbowl in Indianapolis.
The world was speechless. This diva has been around since ...how many years? More than three decades ago? She was one of the first of the MTV icons whose music found greater expression through the innovations of video. By the time the twenty-first century came in, all her peers have practically faded into various degrees of retirement or appear in special retro reunions. Yet Madonna was still prancing, doing squats and cartwheels on stage and commanding a performance that garnered the highest audience share in television in the entire history of the Superbowl.
Oh, yes ... and this was barely a few days after a movie about Wallis Simpson and her lover, the King who abdicated for lover ...opened worldwide.
Barely a week passed and right on the eve of the music industry's biggest awards night, a legend whose voice has become the benchmark of superpower vocals shocked the world by her untimely demise.
No one suspected that this was coming.
Even if Whitney's life had been characterized by such emotional turbulence, a roller coaster of a personal adventure of a phenomenal rise to fame and a marriage that sent her to various portals of hell, Whitney tried to survive.
But after all the battering and speculations of her excessive alcohol use and drug addiction, she eventually slid into a pathetic scenario where so many attempts at a comeback failed. Her voice, that sonorous gift that inspired young women of an entire generation to pursue uncharted heights, had become a mere scratchy echo of what it used to be, a battered instrument that barely resembled and could never be brought back to the quality of the original.
Her body was found on her hotel room bathtub perhaps as a result of substance abuse --- and no different from the way other musical legends have chosen to go through these most recent years: Michael Jackson and Amy Winehouse. After her talent was celebrated from the 1980's all the way to the mid-1990s, Whitney Houston was found dead. She was only 48 years old.
Many say that there is a greater tragedy when the geniuses die young. Winehouse, Kurt Cobain and Janis Joplin all belong to that club of musical legends who exited from this existence all too prematurely and not even hitting their 30s. All fell victim to drugs ... and the inability to deal with the trappings of wealth, fame and power.
What a shame that people like Joplin, Cobain, Morrison and Winehouse died so young. What a waste of talent.
But for others, the greater tragedy comes from the death of those who have outlived their time.
Michael Jackson, incapable of sleep and dependent on drugs and people to perk him up, died weeks before his great comeback concert where he intended to regain not only his waning wealth but the popularity and adulation that kept not only his music but his persona alive through generations. Michael Jackson wanted to return to the throne ... and this desire to regain what was lost killed him.
Whitney Houston's attempts at comebacks fell short of expectations.
As someone said (with such sadness and a sense of loss), her music no longer belonged to the age of Lady Gaga ... or Katy Perry ... or Christina Aguilerra ... or Nikki Minaj .. more so, of Adele. No, it was not that Houston did not possess the talent --- but she was already floating on the power of reputation and memory. Her voice had taken such a beating that she was incapable of duplicating those vocal feats that became a trademark of her singing: she could no longer match the kind of music that her successors were vigorously belting.
Besides, there was Celine ... and there was Mariah. And they too have taken the sidelines, leaving the center stage to the likes of younger female musical icons whose music so embodied the generation of the here and now. The sordid fact is that the audience has changed, the taste has changed. The painful truth is that there is no more room for somebody who was nearing her fifties and singing the same kind of songs that she was singing since the time that Kevin Costner was considered the Hottest Hunk on the Planet Earth.
The ugly truth: the audience outgrew her. She outlived her audience.
That was the biggest tragedy --- when you have become a mere facsimile of yourself. And the only respect that keeps you alive is your past achievements which people know you can no longer sustain... much less, outdo. That was what was most painful --- to wake every morning and realize that.
And that is the saddest of all truths. We all grow old ... and the world only loves the young. Unless you are capable of keeping up with the times ( and what speed do you need to keep the pace with the changes happening all around you)especially in work that depends on the patronage of a mass base, then you are subject to extinction. Evolve or you will die. Worse, you will be counted as dead even when you are still very much alive ... and that is when you start wishing you are really dead.
Aging is a bitch ... and there is no denying about it. For careers that rely on looks and not only talent --- well, there is a specific deadline you have to deal with. One Big Universal Truth: Nothing lasts forever. Certainly not in a business meant to give happiness to the public: people cannot seem to deal with age. Show an old performer --- and there is immediately a flash of pathos that short-circuits the brain.
The cruelty of the audience out there is that they do not want to see wrinkled, shriveled creatures because they only want to celebrate the here and now ... and not want to be reminded of the inevitable.
Seeing Paul MacCartney ... and especially Glenn Campbell at the Grammys pulls some emotional strings in the heart. When you have been long enough to remember how McCartney looked when he was still with his Liverpool quartet singing I Saw Her Standing There or in the movie Help, you realize what the years have done to him. He still sings well ... he is still a musical genius unparalleled to this day. But he is old. He should be old. He was around since the 1960s, remember.
It was both painful and delightful to watch Glenn Campbell sing Rhinestone Cowboy also at the Grammy most especially after it was announced that he was doing his final tour because of his Alzheimer disease. You realize you are watching one of the last few performances of a man who gave country music its brilliance now inherited by the likes of Blake Sheldon. You know that this is the passage of time through music.
And maybe that is what makes the realization all too hard to accept. No, it does not require great understanding because it is inevitable. We all realize that there will come a point in time when Taylor Swift, Chris Brown, Rihanna ... and, yes, even Lady Gaga would succumb to the natural laws of metabolism. They too will age ... at this point we all do not want to imagine Adam Levine as anyone less than who he is in the here and now.
When Madonna at 53 did what others considered impossible, there were still a foray of snide comments hurled at her direction. But that is equally unavoidable if not expected. Others marveled at her physical strength and determination ... but asked, Did she really do anything new?
Behind that spectacle of a zillion dancers filling the stage on a football field, even her most adoring fan would admit that age had taken its toll. She is no longer the same Madonna who left us in awe at her Virgin Tour and especially her Blonde Ambition Tour. Despite her Spartan discipline and Yoga practice, the body can only do so much with time --- and her agility had diminished.
But still. Who cares? Or are we just behaving like fans?
Hell, no! One thing we have to admit is that this Lady fights it out, slugs it out and dances it out. She simply refuses to be put down ... and she does this not only by being on top of her game but by changing the rules. She not alone in this: Tina Turner and Cher have been around longer. And they still rock. It is just that Madonna --- with the innate talent of hers not only for reinvention but for self-promotion --- would not settle for any less than the headlines. Or the Superbowl.
At a time when everybody was hailing Nikki Minaj or awed by the gumption and sheer guts of M.I.A., she drags them to be her rah-rah girls. Just when Cee Lo Green grabbed the wider consciousness of the market not only for his music but for his presence in The Voice, Madonna brings him into her picture.
Madonna does not only morph into Marilyn Monroe, Evita Peron or Dita ... or grabs the influences of art (through Tamara de Lempicka or even Asian art) to constant redefine herself. She also drags the elements of any given moment of pop history and makes sure that she is a part of it. And that is why she endures. She does not believe in retirement ... or just reinvention. She is into various reincarnations.
She keeps herself curious and interested. In turn, the audience --- regardless of what they say --- are tickled with their own inquisitiveness and have remained very, very interested. The ratings of her half-time show could prove that.
Even if there are others who would still hurl insults cursing her age for her ugliness and all that --- one only assumes that such comments come from the nobodies who are born as nobody, will live the life of a nobody and die a nobody ... achieving nothing aside from a generic existence. Such is the envy of the mortals who are doomed to mediocrity and who cannot live their lives vicariously through the eyes of the blessed --- because they are simply not capable of such imagination.
So what about Whitney? What happened? And what does it say about the passage of time ... of fame ... of wealth?
You either fight it or accept. You either go into full battle gear like Madonna ... or you learn to accept that you will eventually lose your audience, you will eventually lose the applause ... and you will be a living memory. You will have to accept the fact that there are less talented people who will be more popular and marketable than you ... simply because they are younger and fresher and maybe cheaper. If you cannot keep yourself young and fresh, then they will wheel you into retirement ... and make you feel that they would not care less if you turned into a pot of fertilizer.
The irony is that when you finally croak ... especially when the plug is pulled and the world is caught unaware, there is this sudden outpouring of love and admiration. There is this need to practically embrace you in your death ... and announce to the world in a chorus of voices how much of a loss your departure will affect the world ... and how good you were in life.
Maybe a more curious thing to ask is why nobody ever said those things when you were around ... and you badly needed such assurances. If there is an afterlife, then that gives spirits wounded and ignored a chance to smile ... even for a moment.
Fame is a bitch.
Everybody thinks of all the trappings that go with fame. The power. The money. The oh-so-beautiful-frenzied life. The chance to be anything or anyone you want to be. But very few --- except those who live to know it --- will ever realize the price one has to pay to be rich, famous, powerful and Somebody.
Oh, there is an old beat up line that goes: It is hard to get to the top but it is harder to stay there. That makes a helluva lot of sense. Another cliche for the moment: Life is lonely at the top. Perhaps ... but the food is better.
But maybe the real lesson learned from all these stars ... both immortal and fallen is that ... regardless of who you are and the ratio of your significance to the equations of the universe, you have your life in your hands --- and you make the most out of everything that you can be and not be happy with dreams of becoming. It is good to be reckless with one's desire. It is terrific to be ruled with passion. For that is the only way to live. When you are merely resigned to life, then you have relegated your existence to the status of vegetation.
In a span of seven days, Madonna awed us at the Superbowl with her performance ... and Whitney died. But regardless of the passage of years, decades and centuries ... the image of Madonna performing and the recorded voice of Whitney singing the choruses of her most famous songs with her even more legendary voice will be timeless.
Who said that they have grown old? Artists are immortal. They will outlive even the audience that made them into demigods.