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Why Whitney Houston’s death needed a rewrite

The toxicology report on Whitney Houston is due to come out any day now, and it will almost certainly confirm what police told her family after investigating the scene of her death — that she met her unfortunate end after ingesting Xanax and Valium, chasing it with champagne, and taking a bath. The combo of benzos and booze relaxed her right into whatever next world there may be.

Of course, I could be wrong. Almost no one seems to like this cause of death. It’s unsatisfying. Too ordinary. It’s the kind of death any of us might accidentally slip in to. I mean, this is Whitney! She’s a diva! A superstar! Surely God wouldn’t have let her go out like this. An illegal OD is senseless, too, but this. It’s somehow so… common.

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not being snarky all over her corpse. Any time someone dies under the age of, oh, 78, which is the national life expectancy, we can probably go ahead and award some degree of tragedy to it. But quite a number of people, some of whom even knew the dead pop star, have convinced themselves — in the public interest, of course — that she must have flamed out in some other, more interesting way.

Bill O’Reilly, who makes his living shaming everyone who isn’t like him, thinks she attempted suicide. Nancy Grace, the former prosecutor who makes her living accusing ordinary folks without evidence, witnesses, or sometimes even a crime, thinks she was drowned. Whitney’s alleged “family members” are now calling for the coroner to investigate this very possibility, despite the fact that there were all sorts of witnesses to the singer’s final hours and also despite the fact that police on the scene immediately ruled out foul play. (No water in her lungs means she didn’t drown.)

Then there are the millions of people who feel cheated that Whitney didn’t overdose, as if she owed it to them somehow after morphing from R&B’s leading crossover artist to a crackhead reality-show punchline. “They say she ODed on crack,” said one friend-of-a-friend on Facebook minutes after the death was announced, apparently assuming that her friends gossiping amongst each other counted as some sort of star chamber for celebrity. People who had an axe to grind about cocaine implied she’d been smoking rock. People with a beef against marijuana noted that she had smoked that at some point in her life. Anyone who normally decried Xanax, Big Pharma, the music industry, and fame in general grabbed a weapon. Everyone got in on the deathbang.

We already know, of course, that mixing downers is bad, and mixing them with alcohol is even worse. Whitney had a big gig that night, performing at Clive Davis’ pre-Grammy party, and had been drinking at the hotel bar that day; she regularly took the Xanax before big singing engagements to calm her nerves. The bottles found in her room: Ibuprofen, Xanax, Valium, Amoxicillin for a throat infection, along with some champagne and a Heineken. And that’s it. 50 million prescriptions are written for benzodiazepines every year in the US alone. Guess how many people you know are mixing them like this? What many Americans call “Saturday night,” the press called WHITNEY’S FATAL BINGE and HER LAST TROUBLED HOURS because she a) accidentally died and b) was famous.

Elvis Presley died from a much more impressive cocktail of legal drugs than this. Michael Jackson, as we know now, followed the King’s lead in abusing scrips. Yet this was also somehow not enough, as if we couldn’t believe our own manufactured gods could be snuffed out by everyday pills. Elvis fans insisted that they’d seen him shopping or eating at a restaurant for years after his actual death. Both Presley’s and Jackson’s doctors were made public scapegoats, in spite of the overwhelming evidence that both singers went about assembling their legal drug cocktails with precision and diligence.

We do this all the time now. When a politically polarizing person dies, we assume they’ve been “silenced.” When alcoholics, cokeheads, and the morbidly obese die young, we automatically assume their addictions were the cause, and that they went out with a bang, not a whimper. It’s as if we can’t bear to relegate them back to mere personhood, mere humanity, after having been thought of as immortal for so long; where we once were content to foist our life fantasies on them, they have to take on our death fantasies now as well. They lived in ways we never dared to — how dare they die like we do?

The great irony is that it’s exactly this kind of mythmaking that makes stardom such a bitch to bear (and it is, money and perks and groupies notwithstanding). Drugs are not all one thing, illegal or otherwise, but when you’re smoking crack on a regular basis, I think it’s safe to assume something’s not making you happy. Something that you’ve been groomed to think should make you happy. Then, after your career is hanging by a thread and it’s all you can do to keep up appearances, maybe you grow up and switch over to mature, legal, serious drugs — perhaps something to calm you down before a show. And maybe you have an accident.

Sympathy is pointless in these situations, but it might help all of us, as we move through our day, to recognize that superstars really are human, that they haven’t necessarily evolved above us just because we need them to. They haven’t necessarily failed as humans, either, if they fall off that mountaintop we placed them on. They work, they live, they struggle. And sometimes they fall.

Still, Whitney did have her problems, and she did live large. So I allow a very small margin for error, and concede that the toxicology report may prove me wrong after all — Bobby Brown may have smoked one more big rock with his ex, pretended to reconcile with her, then injected her with window cleaner so that he could take half her estate, jealous as he was of Whitney’s larger, more passionate fanbase, then ate the face off a security guard and wore it out of the hotel to disguise himself.

Somehow I doubt it, though.