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Music and the Public Mourning of Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston

Carrie Allen Tipton (Houston, TX)

With the deaths of Michael Jackson (1958–2009) and Whitney Houston (1963–2012), two of the brightest stars in the popular music firmament of the 1980s and 1990s flamed out. They shared much in common. In the early and mid-1980s, when MTV was still a major arbiter of youthful musical tastes, their videos received heavy play—at the time, a rarity for artists of color. Both artists released fundamentally optimistic music, resonant with the buoyancy felt by certain segments of the United States during the Reagan years, before 9/11, the 2008 financial crisis, and the deepening political, economic, and cultural schisms that ushered in the new century. Both artists built on the legacies of iconic African-American musical styles and genres. Jackson hailed from a dance-inflected funk, hard soul, and R&B background, while Houston extended the tradition of the regal gospel-soul diva. And in the early 2000s, after a decade of critical and popular success, both artists experienced increasingly acute, widely publicized personal difficulties. When these struggles culminated in Jackson’s and Houston’s drug-related deaths within three years of each other, the world was left to mourn artists whose star-texts comprised spectacular artistic successes and enormous personal burdens. Their memorial services, broadcast globally to millions of viewers, were important focal points for the public grieving of these complex figures. At these events, music encompassed and helped reconcile the conflicting aspects of their public personas, leaving fans with final, powerful sonic impressions of each star. 

Michael Jackson’s public memorial service was held on July 7, 2009, at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, attended by fans and luminaries. The size and nature of the venue allowed for complex staging, large-group musical performances, and sophisticated digital projections—at times reading more like an arena concert than a funeral. Throughout the service, emphasis remained squarely on Jackson’s artistic achievements and philanthropic contributions via live performances of his hit songs and other pop music, eulogies, photographs, and video montages. Speakers mostly glossed over Jackson’s personal turmoil, including the drug use and abuse allegations that haunted him in the 1990s and 2000s. The eulogies rarely mentioned Jackson’s problems, and then only in veiled terms. (The Reverend Al Sharpton, for example, referred to Jackson as the target of unwarranted media scrutiny.) At the end of the event, two final musical moments featuring Jackson’s own songs engaged the singer’s ambiguous legacy of global popularity and personal woe, ultimately foregrounding the former while gently acknowledging the latter. The final live performance of the funeral featured a choral rendition of Jackson’s own “Heal the World,” from his 1991 album Dangerous—a song about the alleviation of global hardship. The joyful performance of “Heal the World,” sung by people of multiple ethnicities and ages, reinforced Jackson’s legacy as a humanitarian pop superstar whose music transcended social barriers.

 

 “Heal the World” as performed by a choir at Michael Jackson’s memorial service

 

After a few more eulogies, Jackson’s casket was wheeled away while a lone, unattended microphone was placed on stage. The service then culminated in an instrumental version of Jackson’s introspective “Man in the Mirror,” from the 1988 album Bad.

 

Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” as performed at his memorial service

 

The song’s intimate, conversational text, written in first person, urges listeners to “make the world a better place” by imitating the narrator as he examines his own moral path. By omitting these lyrics, the instrumental version highlighted the erasure of Jackson’s ability to redirect his own life journey, which had taken painful turns in recent years. The arrangement’s delicate vulnerability also evoked the sense of Jackson as a haunted, troubled man. At the same time, however, merely hearing the instrumental arrangement would have reminded many listeners of the song’s well-known text. The mere memory of the lyrics—even in their very absence—suggested that by outlasting him, Jackson’s music can still help create the positive moral changes called for in “Man in the Mirror.” By highlighting Jackson’s uplifting texts, the re-interpretations of “Heal the World” and “Man in the Mirror” obscured the more troubled aspects of his personal identity.

Whitney Houston’s public memorial service on February 18, 2012, occurred at her childhood church, New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, New Jersey. Houston’s funeral consisted of eulogies and live performances by gospel and pop stars, mostly of songs she herself had never recorded. (At Jackson’s memorial service, by contrast, his own music made up most of the performances.). Houston’s funeral skewed toward the heavily religious (again in contrast to Jackson’s service), clearly rooted in the musical and ritual practices of the Black Baptist tradition, as befitted the 1990’s most prominent heir of the gospel soul mantle of Aretha Franklin. There were sermonic eulogies and performances by the church choir and gospel singers such as Kim Burrell and CeCe Winans. The church sanctuary setting and the prominence of gospel artists and songsas well as “secular” songs such as Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” reinterpreted in explicitly Christian termsprovided a framework of existential hope for comprehending Houston’s earthly struggles and untimely death.

 

Kim Burrell singing “A Change is Gonna Come” at Whitney Houston’s funeral

 

As in Jackson’s case, Houston’s personal pain (drug use and domestic abuse) was alluded to only vaguely in eulogies. Her former film co-star Kevin Costner summarized her difficulties in very general terms, for example, saying, “The Whitney I knew, despite her worldwide fame, always worried. ‘Am I good enough? Am I pretty enough? Will they like me?’ The part that made her great was also the part that made her stumble.” At the very end of the event, Houston’s own voice was finally summoned to provide aural closure. As her coffin was removed by pallbearers, Houston’s iconic 1992 cover of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” was played over the church’s sound system. Its poignant first-person opening line (“If I should stay, I would only be in your way; so I’ll go…”) addressed mourners and viewers with a startling and powerful immediacy. The song’s nuanced combination of power-belting vocal technique and vulnerable, intimate lyrics—particularly in the lengthy a cappella opening—echoed the complex, multifaceted aspects of Houston’s public persona. Her robust melismas and forceful vibratothe last thing heard at the funeral serviceleave a final impression of personal strength and resilience.

 

 Whitney Houston’s performance of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” plays over the speakers as Houston’s coffin is removed from her funeral site.

 

With their blockbuster pop songs and music videos, Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston soundtracked the 1980s and 1990s for many young people, providing the sense of a collective, shared past for a whole generation. Their video (and, in Houston’s case, film) appearances perhaps rendered them more “known” to fans, so that when their personal stories traced the narrative arc of tragedy, the outpouring of grief was real and visceral for millions around the globe. Makeshift memorialsvirtual expressions of shock and grief, and their public funerals show that mourning these stars meant wrestling with the dramatic coexistence of human potential and frailty that they embodied. Because the event organizers chose to conclude both services with songs released at the peak of the artists’ performing careers, listeners were left with an aural imprint of happier times—in the lives of the artists themselves, and perhaps in their own lives, too. “Heal the World,” “Man in the Mirror,” and “I Will Always Love You” were projected as each singer’s final and authoritative public performance, at times gently acknowledging but in the end overriding and transforming the troubled dimensions of their public personas. In some sense, recordings of the younger Jackson and the younger Houston were able to salvage, perhaps even redeem, their public failures, bridging the gap between triumph and tragedy.

 

For Discussion

  1. If you are not familiar with Michael Jackson’s and Whitney Houston’s musical output, research some of their songs, focusing on lyrics and musical settings. Why might organizers of Jackson’s funeral have used so much of his own music at the event, while organizers of Houston’s funeral used hers very little?
  2. Houston’s funeral highlighted her biographical and musical connections to African-American Christianity, especially gospel music. Describe how Houston’s music—even her “secular” recordings—demonstrated her gospel music roots.
  3. Why might the event organizers—family members, public relations personnel, artist/label management personnel—have chosen the music they did to memorialize Jackson and Houston? How do these choices demonstrate their investment in how the public would remember the artists?

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