Some of the blog entries written about Whitney Houston's death last week were a legitimate outpouring of grief, and some of what I felt when I heard the news was a real sadness, a real desire to express what the passing of a musician I hadn't thought about in a few years meant to me, but this blog entry--and a thousand others--is mostly just a response to bad incentives.
At their most benign, these incentives lead to blogs ostensibly about gardening or sports cars trying desperately to write Tim Tebow's name into the front of a headline, where Google News will read it. At its most cynical, it leads to a wall of identical, slapdash posts with Whitney Houston Death in the headline--like this one--because that's what tested well and because five small posts are infinitely better for pageviews than one long one.
Earlier this week a baseball writer was excoriated, for instance, for connecting Whitney Houston's death with Josh Hamilton's considerably less serious relapse--a connection that didn't, to many people, seem quite as organic as rumination on death and addiction ought to. On the Internet, a startling majority of pageviews--even to places like Facebook--come from Google; the more something is searched for the more is written about it, and the more is written about it the more people search for it. That's literally the Huffington Post's business model: Find something people are looking for, and duplicate it until they aren't looking for it anymore.
All of this is impossible to avoid, no matter how news is disseminated--on more conventional newsstands we're no more than a day or two away from a million glossy, full-color special-tribute-editions to Whitney Houston with the same wire photos and slapped-together copy competing with each other. But I've noticed, since Michael Jackson died, that the search engine news cycle has permanently changed the way I grieved celebrities, if grieved is the right word.
Now there's no moving on when the obituary is in the newspaper and the glossy magazines have passed their sell-by date--there's just waves of repetition and re-reaction with each new bit of lurid data about the whole thing. I'm not sure if Whitney Houston or Michael Jackson would have inspired an eight-minute folk song anyway--the eight-minute folk single has, generally, died a much less tragic death. But they never will in this environment, because they can't be dead as long as people are searching for them, as long as the articles that are slapped together in response to that search traffic cause other people to search for them. Celebrities just don't die anymore. It's good in a way--nobody listens to the Big Bopper anymore, and even Buddy Holly fades in and out, but after Michael Jackson died he became more relevant than he'd been in twenty years; people who never would have listened to Thriller while he was a creepy joke were exposed to the hyper-confident, other-worldly Michael Jackson of "Wanna Be Starting Something," and that's a good thing, however weird the reason for it.
But the organic cult-of-Elvis afterlife isn't available for anybody any more. As long as the Internet continues to eat search engine traffic and excrete bite-sized articles that can be shared on Facebook and searched for some more, we can't remember musicians like we used to. Your grief turns into my pageviews turns into somebody's grief.
I don't think I'd listened to Whitney Houston on purpose in ten years before I heard she'd died. I Googled It's Not Right But It's Okay, and it was great, but I couldn't help but feel like I was missing something.
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