WHITNEY HOUSTON died in the arms of the recording industry. Her body was still in the Beverly Hilton when, several floors away, her mentor Clive Davis welcomed guests to his pre-Grammy party with a tribute to the singer. The eulogizing continued through Sunday’s Grammy telecast, with Jennifer Hudson singing one of Houston’s biggest hits. Record producer David Foster tweeted a warning to anyone who would speculate about Houston’s death, saying no one else could know what it felt like “to walk in her shoes.’’
The restraint was appropriate. But at some point the recording industry - that self-described family that gathers at Grammy time - needs to ask itself why so many of its superstars are dying these lonely deaths. And it must do what it can to prevent them.
Circumstances differ, but there’s a pattern to these downward spirals: A still-young but aging icon, body weakened from substance abuse, battling insecurities involving weight or appearance, feeling the need to keep performing to feed an entourage of handlers and enablers, turns up dead while millions of fans fall to grief. Elvis Presley went this way. His tragic demise in 1977 evoked those of icons of earlier generations, like Judy Garland - just as those of Michael Jackson and Houston now call to mind his own.
Drug abuse is part of the picture, spurred by the pressure to perform; Houston reportedly took Xanax to calm her nerves. Money problems are another common thread, as even some stars with huge lifetime earnings saw them eaten away by bad financial decisions, too many staff members, and their own youthful profligacy. Then there is the scandal-mongering of the tabloids, and the unattainable expectations of many fans.
To its credit, the recording industry has tackled the link between the music lifestyle and substance abuse by supporting MusiCares, a charity that, among other things, helps musicians overcome their addictions. It’s an important initiative, backed by some of the biggest names in the industry. But it addresses itself to the average musician, not the young stars like Adele, whose Grammy sweep on Sunday will only raise the pressure and expectations on her.
Some of the Grammy legends who’ve survived decades in the spotlight - the one-word stars with names like Madonna, Bruce, Paul, and Barbra - should share how they managed to carve out space for privacy and stability, in some cases by living outside Hollywood and keeping the industry at arm’s length. They can also offer tips on how to obtain credible financial advice.
Meanwhile, Davis and other industry moguls should take the lead in setting broad ethical standards for agents, managers, financial advisers, lawyers, and doctors - who should agree, at the expense of ostracism, to take strictly limited shares of the profits, and accept some responsibility for an artist’s well-being. Happiness as a middle-aged idol starts with solid advice and sensible choices when the voice is fresh, the body is lean, and the future seems limitless.