2/20/13

Mindy McCready: Not a Legend, a Tragedy

As it happens, she wasn't very tough.

Legend: (n) nonhistorical or unverifiable story handed down by tradition from earlier times; body of stories of this kind…accepted as historical; the person at the center of such stories. Synonyms: myth, fable

I awoke on February 18 to hear the sad news that country music artist Mindy McCready had taken her own life. Then I toddled off to the gym where one of the TV screens was tuned to Fox News and saw one of its gaudy banners atop the talking heads. I never listen to Fox (or any other network news), but the headline caught my eye: “Legendary Country Singer Mindy McCready Dead at 37.” Legendary? That’s a stretch even by the sloppy (non) standards of contemporary American English. With the exception of the word "hero," it’s hard to imagine a more misused word in our language than “legend.”  (Regarding “heroes,” it would behoove most who use that term to renew their acquaintance with the word “victim.”) In what ways, exactly, was Mindy McCready legendary? Her life was an open book whose pages we endlessly viewed whether we wished to or not. It was all too verifiable and the only “tradition” associated with it is voyeurism.

I’m not here to praise or bury Mindy McCready. I’m more concerned with what Joni Mitchell  labeled the “star-maker machinery” that seeks to transform a moderately talented singer into an epic drama. In fact, I think it may be partly responsible for McCready’s suicide. It is the pop machine that inures us to damaged individuals who should be in therapy rather than on stage.

McCready’s musical legacy was thin. She released five albums between 1996 and 2010, of which only the first, Ten Thousand Angels, made it as high as #4 on the country charts. It did contain a # 1 single, “Guys Do It All the Time,” but things steadily declined from there. She hadn’t been on the charts since 2002, when one of her songs was ranked #49, and it’s hard not to read things into the title of her last album: I’m Still Here (2010). In all, McCready sold about 3 million units–not shabby, but not exactly “White Christmas” territory either. It was enough, however, to keep her in the tabloid column, though her troubled personal life made much better copy than anything she could slap onto a CD.

Her biography reveals far more valleys than peaks. It began with a Pentecostal upbringing one suspects instilled in her a sense of unworthiness, and Nashville by 18, a place known for chewing up even the strongest. By her disputed telling, she began a decade-long affair with baseball’s Roger Clemens when she was 16, and began sleeping with him when she was 18. It didn’t get much better. Her résumé includes several broken engagements, drinking, and enduring domestic abuse at the hands of a man from whom she separated and then reconnected long enough to become pregnant by him. Then came a suicide attempt, drug abuse, a porn tape, a new boyfriend, a second child, more drinking, Oxycontin, a DUI conviction, a charge of identity theft, and a custody battle with her own mother over guardianship of her children. The father of the second child, record producer David Wilson, allegedly committed suicide a month ago. (This case has been reopened.) This isn’t legend; it’s a tragedy of Greek proportions.

Now that her pathetic (as in pathos) life has ended, it’s time for tears, flowers, and teddy bears. Weepy faces appear on the screen sobbing, “We love you, Mindy.” No, you didn’t, and she didn’t love you either. Mindy McCready was a walking basket-case who desperately needed help, but who cares if she’s an OMG moment on Fox News or the Yahoo! Homepage? It’s no accident that her first record was the one that made the splash. It was her turn to be the flavor of the month served up by the star-maker machinery. Then the machine turned. Here’s how it goes. You begin with fame and graduate to celebrity. Both are ephemeral. You either add more fuel to the machine, or the final cycle is notoriety. The strong go to rehab and start the cycle anew. (Don’t we just love rehab stories?) The weak end up like Mindy McCready. There’s nothing legendary about it--it's as common as dust. Joni Mitchell’s “Free Man in Paris” is worth quoting in its entirety:

"The way I see it," he said
"You just can't win it...
Everybody's in it for their own gain
You can't please 'em all
There's always somebody calling you down
I do my best
And I do good business
There's a lot of people asking for my time
They're trying to get ahead
They're trying to be a good friend of mine

I was a free man in Paris
I felt unfettered and alive
There was nobody calling me up for favors
And no one's future to decide
You know I'd go back there tomorrow
But for the work I've taken on
Stoking the star maker machinery
Behind the popular song

I deal in dreamers
And telephone screamers
Lately I wonder what I do it for
If l had my way
I'd just walk through those doors
And wander
Down the Champs Elysees
Going cafe to cabaret
Thinking how I'll feel when I find
That very good friend of mine

I was a free man in Paris
I felt unfettered and alive
Nobody was calling me up for favors
No one's future to decide
You know I'd go back there tomorrow
But for the work I've taken on
Stoking the star maker machinery
Behind the popular song."

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