One week from now, America will be marking the twentieth anniversary of 9/11. The observances will be muted, because the world's superpower lost the war on terror so totally preposterously that it has made itself a global laughingstock. So, ahead of "the day the world changed" (insofar as it set in motion a slo-mo two-cade defeat), I thought we'd revisit August 2001 with a few columns of mine from that last summer.
We began at the beginning of August with the summer of sharks, continued with racial demagoguery then and now, and then a column that captured the long, lazy, languorous holiday from history. For this week's entry, here's as ostensibly trivial a subject as any - the death of a young pop star. And yet it seems to me a portent of tomorrow in an America that has waged war on social mobility and the middle class and is bifurcating into a Latin-American-style division into overclass and underclass. One consequence of that is that functioning-society quality-control crumbles underneath you without you ever being aware that it's so doing - and, like Aaliyah, you have no idea of all the corner-cutters, the crackheads and the generally feckless turning every routine activity into a crap shoot.
This is from The National Post of September 3rd 2001:
"A Funeral To Die For" declared the front page of The New York Post, as Aaliyah departed this mortal coil in a traffic-snarling horse-drawn cortege with silver casket and ceremonial release of 22 doves, one for each year of her brief life. Like almost everybody else, I'd never heard of the bestselling r'n'b'n'movie star until her Cessna crashed just after takeoff a week ago. But that's okay. Nobody's that popular any more: Popular culture is more accurately characterized these days as a lot of mutually hostile unpopular cultures.
So let us take Rochelle Riley, writing in Saturday's National Post, at her word, and agree that "Aaliyah was Mercury rising. She was Saturn with brilliant rings of movies, songs and laughter getting brighter and hotter."
"But she was more," adds Miss Riley, hastily, just in case you're getting blase. "Unlike others on the verge of greatness, Aaliyah's success had already mounted the horizon and was coming at her like a sunrise in a hurry ... For her, the what-might-have-beens weren't untouchable."
The trouble was, unlike others on the verge of the Street of Dreams, Aaliyah's gold-plated Cadillac had already mounted the sidewalk and was coming at her like a Rochelle Riley sentence careering toward a multi-metaphor pile-up. Dying young can be a good career move, but not too young. Though her Web site has declared her "the Princess Diana of hip-hop," Aaliyah is a household name for the briefest of moments.
The family evidently took their cue for the funeral arrangements from the Princess Di reference, a comparison Rod Dreher, The New York Post's splendid columnist, found preposterous. This in turn provoked the Reverend Al Sharpton, New York's pre-eminent bloviating charlatan, to accuse Dreher of "racial profiling." "We will bring down anybody who tells us how to mourn our own," he told attenders of an Aaliyah mourn-in at his Harlem HQ. "What do you mean horse carriages shouldn't be used, doves shouldn't fly? What you really mean is you should have a nice little Negro funeral." Warming to his theme, he rejected suggestions that Aaliyah was no Princess of Wails. "To say that she was less than someone else is abysmal, insulting and racist," he declared. "She wasn't born into royalty, she earned royalty."
I hate to intrude in this squabble, but I have to agree with Rev Al. Aaliyah is the Princess Di of hip-hop at least in this respect: She's dead because she was in the company of jerks. I'm aware Mohammed Fayed believes the Princess was killed by an elaborate conspiracy led by the Duke of Edinburgh and MI5, but the weight of the evidence supports the alternative theory that she died because she fell in with Fayed's flashy, trashy son and entrusted herself to his boozed-up chauffeur. A Buckingham Palace driver would not have been drunk, would not have tried to outrun the paparazzi, would not have been speeding through a tunnel. The cultural difference is exemplified by the only one of the four people in the car to survive: her dutiful, Welsh, Palace-provided bodyguard, who did the dull, sensible, British thing and wore his seatbelt.
Aaliyah, in the Bahamas to make a video, seems to have been keeping pretty much the same company. The pilot pleaded no contest two weeks earlier to crack cocaine possession and dealing in stolen property; he does not seem to have been licensed to fly the Cessna; in the last two years, the charter company has been cited four times for safety violations; and the plane took off way overloaded. A Bahamian baggage handler warned the pilot they were putting too much on board, but Aaliyah's entourage told 'em to quit being so picky, they needed to get back to Miami. Then her 300-lb bodyguard and another man of similar weight boarded the Cessna and finding themselves unable to squeeze up the narrow aisle lowered themselves into the two rear seats by the door. With skinny Aaliyah up the front and the two heavy dudes and all the bags at the rear, the Cessna wobbled up into the air and came down almost immediately. Unlike the deaths of Glenn Miller, Buddy Holly, Patsy Cline, Lynyrd Skynyrd or John Denver, this is one pop-star rendezvous with destiny you can't put down to mechanical malfunction or poor weather conditions. Instead, as London's Daily Mirror headlined it, "Fat Guard Caused Air Crash." He was Aaliyah's bodyguard, but in the end the only thing she needed guarding from was his body.
Whether Aaliyah herself would have chosen to take off with a crack-convicted pilot on an overloaded plane he wasn't supposed to be flying we will never know, but it's doubtful anyone asked her opinion. One of the sadder aspects of becoming a "celebrity" -- in the Aaliyah sense -- is the certain knowledge that you'll be spending your life surrounded by awful, third-rate people -- the entourage that's supposed to keep the world from getting at you and instead keeps you from getting at the world. I was once at a songwriters' gala at Radio City Music Hall and, milling on the sidewalk afterwards, was asked if I'd mind helping Whitney Houston over to the big dinner at the Hilton just across the street. Whitney had become separated from her entourage and a mutual pal evidently thought that, in my lumpy ill-fitting airline-crushed tux, I was the nearest thing to a professional heavy. So I accompanied Whitney across Sixth Avenue. It was a lovely, balmy evening, and any New Yorkers who recognized her were too cool to care. The only person who seemed to be having a bad time was Whitney. Ah, you say, that's because she was with you. Well, it's true that not being in the hands of a professional accompanist seemed to add to her discomfort, but what was noticeable was that the entire manoeuver of crossing the road seemed to stress her out. I believe they had streets in the neighbourhood where she grew up, but, though it wasn't that long ago, it was a lost world to her.
As it happens, she was much safer crossing Sixth Avenue with me than with the kind of hired help the music biz provides. This summer, in the Hamptons, the talk has been of Lizzie Grubman, an entertainment publicist and daughter of Allen Grubman, attorney for among others Bruce Springsteen, who's made a very nice living singing songs professing solidarity with blue-collar people, an affinity that, alas, hasn't rubbed off on his lawyer's daughter. In July, Miss Grubman was at the amusingly named Conscience Point Inn, when the club's bouncer asked her if she'd mind moving her daddy's Mercedes SUV from the fire lane. Miss Grubman replied, "Fuck you, white trash!" and reversed the Merc at speed into the bouncer and some 15 other people. Sadly, Lizzie's eye for socio-economic classification isn't as keen as she fancies, since some of those injured were not white trash but, according to New York magazine, "A-listers". Poor Lizzie, a publicist whose publicity is now out of control.
This is what you get when you decide you can no longer cross the street without an entourage. Instead of the normal exchanges of daily life --with the waitress and the greengrocer and the guy at the newsstand --the modern celebrity gets to hang out with paralytic chauffeurs, bonehead pilots, lardbutt bodyguards, homicidal publicists -- in a heady world where none of the rules apply -- not the one about wearing seatbelts, or about observing load limits, or about not reversing over the citizenry. Rules are for "them," not "us." The hangers-on get the benefits of proximity to fame: I once called on the great Latin heartthrob Julio Iglesias in his hotel and, while I was waiting, asked the guy from the entourage how the tour was going. "Terrific," he said. "Julio's getting on a bit so we get most of the girls." But what does the star get? Being walled up with losers all day long doesn't even qualify as a Faustian bargain.
But sometimes sadly even the greatest star discovers that some rules apply universally -- when you're in a tunnel hurtling towards the concrete, when you lift off the runway and that little lurch gives you just a second to realize something's not right. Let's not begrudge Aaliyah her doves. They soared so beautifully, so easily. Freighted with the excess baggage of celebrity, her little Cessna was unable to do the same.
~from The National Post, September 3rd 2001.
Many of Mark's pieces from this period can be found in his anthologies Mark Steyn from Head to Toe and The [Un]documented Mark Steyn, personally autographed copies of which are exclusively available from the SteynOnline bookstore. And, if you're a member of The Mark Steyn Club, don't forget to enter your promotional code at checkout for special member pricing.