Whenever a musician dies, it seems like casual fans come out of the woodwork to celebrate the fallen star's life. In February, you couldn't walk 14 steps or go two cars without someone blaring one of Whitney Houston's albums. Over the past four days, you'd be hard-pressed not to hear someone talk about how important Adam Yauch, aka MCA, was, and how amazing the Beastie Boys are. This isn't to question either one of these artist's talents, both of which were enormous. But the manner in which they died, and the subsequent public reactions, were markedly different — and surprising.
Houston, as has been well-documented and confirmed by an autopsy, died of an overdose. No ifs, ands, or buts. The woman had a major drug problem. Sadly, she had become a laughingstock over the last decade of her life (in retrospect, Being Bobby Brown is painful to watch) who hadn't put out a lick of good music in nearly two decades. When she died before the Grammys, you would have thought that a head of state had passed rather than an R&B singer.
It's painful to write this, but Houston hadn't been relevant in a long time. Contrast that with MCA. Unlike the legendary songstress, the Beastie Boy wasn't as decorated, at least when it came to awards. But the one thing that can't be denied is how important he was to the history not only of hip hop, but music as a whole.
Cancer is a disease that can be controlled, but not cured. Addiction is a disease as well, but can be defeated with the help of a strong family and inner circle. That's where the differences in the responses to each death begin. For the weeks following Houston's death, there was a funeral paid for by Newark, N.J.'s taxpayers, flags at half-staff and an endless wave of interviews with family members on morning shows — as recently as last week, her former spouse Bobby Brown appeared in a much-watched segment on the Today show hailed as his “first televised interview post Houston's death.”
When Yauch died, there were also written tributes and an outpouring of support, but in a much different manner. The sadness was the same, but the tributes and all of the other extracurricular activity have been kept to a minimum. In his final days, the only news regarding his health was his surprising no-show at the Beasties' Rock N Roll Hall of Fame Induction. That was a hint that not all was well, but it was kept so under-the-radar his death was just as much of a shock as Houston's sudden overdose.
A great humanitarian who was deeply involved with many social issues including the Tibetan movement, women's rights, racism and support for the victims of 9/11, Yauch quietly went about his business, getting involved with causes because it was the right thing to do. He used his celebrity to help people, and the public rarely heard stories about his good deeds outside of the Tibetan Freedom Concerts he put on in the late '90s. That was what made Yauch such a revered figure. He was willing to help others without worrying about seeing his name in big lights.
Both Houston and Yauch impacted plenty of people. And, in a way, they both received fitting tributes: one's was extravagant; the other's, less so. We can't help but see the reactions to both of their deaths as symbols of who we are as a society — which is to say we appreciate and celebrate the circus of a star with a sad descent into reality television-like drama and sensationalism as opposed to an understated, yet important figure who impacted the mainstream in ways we'll probably never fully realize.