“Can I be me?”
This simple plea made by Whitney Houston provides the title of the recent BBC documentary detailing the multiple factors that led to her personal and professional downfall. Why is it that this question wouldn’t sound out of place in the mouths of many of the female pop stars at the top of their game today?
Can I Be Me? digs deep into the drugs, fame and relationships that culminated in Houston’s historic career fading away until her untimely death. One shocking realization is the extent to which Houston’s career was curated to make people think of her as the quintessential pop star. She had the looks, youth and voice that record companies feed off, and they more than got their money’s worth out of her, morphing her into the perfect pop product. The film outlines the aggressive manipulation that went into her branding, namely the focus on manufacturing her appeal to white audiences. It is almost as if Houston was married off to the music industry as a young woman, so inspired by the promise of success, and so naïve to the artistic and personal freedom she would have to sacrifice to obtain it.
Regrettably, the sinister tradition of female artists being so forcibly “owned” by record labels, exemplified by Whitney Houston, isn’t so foreign today; there was a scandal when Beyoncé broke from her father’s management, making the bold move to manage herself in a world full of talented women working under older men who hold the strings. Kesha, too, is notoriously legally bound to her rapist/producer Dr. Luke, under contract to continue working with him despite a long-drawn-out lawsuit against him. As Nicki Minaj pointed out in a recent interview with T Magazine, as much as a label brings you success and career safety, you renounce a large amount of your creative and, consequently, personal freedom.
In her own recent documentary, Gaga: Five Foot Two, Lady Gaga expresses the desire to do away with the smoke and mirrors that she burst onto the music scene with in 2008. Yet it is heartbreakingly clear that in attempting to get down from her pedestal as the other-worldly being who wears meat dresses and indulges in surreal aesthetics, the public have lost interest. Of course she is still a major pop star, but the contrast in success of her earlier albums where she took on an elaborate persona that parodied and challenged fame and art, and her recent, more stripped-back productions is striking. It is as if we can’t let her be too relatable, too human. Is there anything more upsetting than stripping away a once-beloved mask and being faced with rejection?
An even more prevalent example of the public enforcing a narrative upon a female pop star is what has come of Taylor Swift. Once music’s sweetheart, one day the sweetness dosage was just too high and the world snapped. There were murmurings under the surface about her being bad news, but silence during an election and a Kardashian-related scandal were all it took to turn her into public enemy No.1. Despite its pettiness, in the greater scheme of things, ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ sounds like a cry for help from a woman who, through very little of her own doing, is now a villain. I’m no fan of Swift, but is she evil incarnate, as the pop culture essays and Facebook posts paint her as? Of course not. The PR machine of Hollywood that controls everything we see about her had a hitch and now she has to bear the brunt.
Because the thing is, these women are not in ivory towers. The humans behind the music videos and the paparazzi shots see the vicious articles and clock the violent hashtags celebrating the end of their careers. We commodify them in life and mourn them in death. And when they do die, like Whitney long before her time, we aren’t really crying for them. We’re crying for who we thought they were, the package that was designed and wrapped up just how we wanted it.
It is troubling that the music industry still runs on a vicious system of control over female artists who day by day seem increasingly molded to fit society’s rubric for successful women. These women are outrageously successful, powerful and mostly financially independent. But we still hold them in the same unrealistic esteem as muses of centuries gone by, and the outcome of legends like Whitney Houston demonstrates the danger of continuing to try and direct the trajectory of these stars’ lives.