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Whitney Houston and the paradoxes of celebrity

February 14, 2012 |  6:30 am

Whitney Houston
OK, the train has now wrecked. Where will people be going next for their vicarious celeb thrills?

The death of Whitney Houston raises once more the paradoxes of celebrity: We lap it up, admire and scorn the objects of our attention, want to have what they have -- and at the same time hope they crack up.

This one, in fact, did.

"Money can’t buy happiness," we tell ourselves primly. We believe that we believe that, but we really don't. In our heart of hearts, we think, "Boy, if I had that kind of money, or fame, or both, I wouldn't be such a screw-up. I'd do it right."

It's a perfect package: We can envy celebs and feel sorry for them, even look down on them, all at the same time.

The website Gawker relayed this anecdote:

A woman who posts YouTube videos about entertainment figures for the gossip site Hollyscoop had wrapped up her account of Whitney Houston's appearance at a pre-Grammy party with, "We are happy to see Whitney back on the scene, even if she is acting a little crazy. 'Cause, I’ll admit it -- it's a lot more fun to watch!" The video has been removed from the internet.

After Houston's death, the woman, Stephanie Bauer, tweeted this:

Can't believe I just did a @Hollyscoop story on Whitney's worrisome erratic behavior yesterday! Needless to say I'm getting hate comments.

Houston's death came up during a weekend panel I took part in at the American Jewish University: that in our "bowling alone" culture of isolation, celebrities have become the only people we all "know," even though we don't know them at all. They, instead of the town floozy or the neighborhood adulterer, are now our virtual "neighbors" and the objects of our moralizing.

And yet our secret or not-so-secret desire for fame, that "frenzy of renown," as USC's Leo Braudy calls it in his excellent book of that title, makes people debase themselves in pursuit of it, and so ultimately debase the idea that celebrity stands for some noteworthy accomplishment -- think of the Kardashians and humiliating reality shows -- as opposed to the celebrity of real talent, like Houston's, however many demons may have perched on her shoulders.

ALSO:

Photos: Whitney Houston | 1963-2012

Timeline: Whitney Houston's highs and lows

Video: Jennifer Hudson's Whitney Houston tribute

-- Patt Morrison

Photo: Whitney Houston acknowledges cheers from the audience during her performance at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles on April 10, 2000, during taping of the "25 Years of # 1 Hits: Arista Records' Anniversary Celebration." Credit: Mark J.Terrill / Associated Press 

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