02/14/2012 03:44 pm ET | Updated Apr 15, 2012

Voltaire's Critique of Whitney Houston

"What a heavy burden is a name that has become famous too soon" -- Voltaire

Voltaire's words are usually resurrected for times such as this, when society loses a life that has been on public display. Invariably it is when someone dies prior to what society deems to be the appointed time.

Whitney Houston is the latest to join this eternal pantheon that already has such luminaries as Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Michael Jackson, and Jim Morrison. Last year, Amy Winehouse was inducted to this esteem group.

Their talents and demons were on full display, sometimes simultaneously. We speak of them as if we're on a first name basis, paradoxically in love with them, while not knowing them at all.

The rules are different for those who entertain us. Their music serves as a time machine. With joy and sadness, we're flooded with memories just by hearing a particular song.

And like James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, and countless others, Houston honed her skills in the historical black church. It was the place where she was nurtured and supported.

But the public is different from the church -- our expectations are more demanding. While one's talent will allow us to ignore one's shortcomings, we insist that they continue to deliver on our need to be entertained -- regardless of the toll required.

We didn't know when Houston burst onto the scene in 1985 that she would be held captive by a marketing image that was necessary if she were to have crossover appeal. But it was clear some time ago that the image so carefully crafted for Houston was too much of a burden for her to carry.

We clung to the initial image even as we witnessed what could not be characterized as anything other than erratic behavior. When her self-destruction robbed her angelic voice, we held to the memories of her singing the Star Spangled Banner at the 1991 Super Bowl or of her reminiscing of Kevin Costner as she declared, "I will always love you."

The memories of her amazing talent were more than enough for the public to maintain the slender thread of hope that she would turn it around, return to the image that was so carefully crafted when she became the only recording artist to have seven straight number one songs.

With Houston's demise on public display, we lamented, somewhat cavalierly, why doesn't somebody do something to help her? Surely those who meticulously created the image of Whitney Houston that generated millions in crossover record sales could do something to stop her from spiraling into the abyss.

Such understandable sentiment ignores the tragic reality that only those who stand to be the primary beneficiary of change must also serve as the main artisans.

Does the news of Houston's passing shock us? Not really. It does sadden us. We still have the recordings, the music videos, and the movies. But the second act that many longed for, contrary to the evidence would not occur.

Though a mother has to bury her daughter and a teenage daughter has to say goodbye to her mother, isn't the outpouring of sadness largely for the image of Houston and for us? She let the public down; she failed to meet our expectations.

The effervescent smile, the incredible vocal range, the talent on loan from the divine is permanently silent. But we have no idea what it was like to walk for one hour in Houston's shoes.

At the time of this writing, the cause of death had not been made public. Whatever caused Houston's passing, could we not also offer Voltaire's 18th century observation as a contributing factor?

Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and syndicated columnist. He is the author of the Forthcoming book: 1963: The of Hope and Hostility. Email him at or visit the website: