Whitney Houston is dead at 48. REBECCA DAVIS looks back at the rise and fall of the woman they called, simply, The Voice.
‘Synecdoche’ is the figure of speech in which a part of an entity is used to stand for the whole thing. There was more to Whitney Houston than her voice, but she was so often referred to synecdochically during her lifetime that it was sometimes easy to forget that. Her nickname of ‘The Voice’ speaks volumes: the moniker pares the woman down to the instrument with which she was to win and then lose her fortune, and it presents her singing ability as if somehow existing separately to Houston herself.
“Her voice is a mammoth, coruscating cry,” wrote Rolling Stone in 2008. “Certain voices stand like monuments upon the landscape of 20th century pop, defining the architecture of their times, sheltering the dreams of millions and inspiring the climbing careers of countless imitators,” ran a 2009 LA Times review of her final album, I Look To You. “Whitney Houston owns one of those voices.” The reviewer – who found the album serviceable, but a pale shadow of Houston at her peak – went so far as to suggest Houston had betrayed America by not preserving her talent better. “The pain and, frankly, disgust that so many pop fans felt during Houston’s decline was caused not so much by her personal distress as by her seemingly careless treatment of the national treasure that happened to reside within her,” Ann Powers wrote.
In December, talkshow host Oprah Winfrey quoted these words to Houston while the singer gave what was to be her final major interview. “You really were given the voice. You were given that treasure,” Winfrey said to her. “And people felt, how could you not know that that was to be treasured?”
“I knew in the days when I was a teenager singing for God,” Houston replied softly. “I was so sure. When I became ‘Whitney Houston’ and all this other stuff happened, my life became the world’s.”
In particular, her life became America’s. The performance which propelled Houston’s voice to the position of ‘national treasure’ was used to open the 25th Super Bowl in 1991. American forces had just been deployed to the Gulf, and it was Houston’s task to sing the national anthem as a tribute to the troops. Her performance was extraordinary: heartfelt, simple, largely lacking extravagant gospel flourishes, but showcasing her magnificent vocal range. Above all, it was effortless: in video clips of the performance Houston seems utterly unconcerned by the scale of the event, her hands casually clasped behind her back as she tilts back her head and smilingly unleashes that monumental voice.
Music channel VH1 judged her rendition of the anthem to be one of the greatest moments in TV history. Public response to the performance was so adulatory that her version of the Star Spangled Banner was released as a commercial single and made the top 20 of the American charts, with Houston donating the proceeds to the Red Cross. Exactly 10 years later, the track was re-released. The occasion? The 9/11 attacks, where in the weeks which followed, Houston’s version of the anthem was deemed to be the necessary medicine for the US public to be inspired to rally. In its second release, the track finished in the top 10 on the charts, making it the most successful rendition of the Star Spangled Banner in history.
A profile of her a few years earlier in Ebony magazine reads: “Her exceptional talent, healthy good looks and clean-cut image have combined to establish her as a favourite rising star in the music industry”. In words that now seem tragically poignant, the feature continues: “While other stars are succumbing to drug and alcohol abuse, ego trips and extravagant lifestyles that dry up their financial resources before the royalty checks are even cashed, she shuns drugs and the fast life in general”. When the journalist asked her how she managed to avoid the pitfalls of fame, she attributed it to God and her parents.
Houston’s was no rags-to-riches story. She came from a solidly middle-class family in New Jersey. Her father John was an official on the Newark Central Planning Board and her mother Cissy was a well-known pop and gospel singer. Indeed, Houston was practically from royalty as far as gospel and soul music were concerned: her cousin was 60s legend Dionne Warwick, and her godmother was soul giant Aretha Franklin.
Houston started her musical track singing in her local church, and while there was interest in her from a young age, her mother insisted she finish high school before attempting a professional career. Eventually signing with Arista Records in 1985, Houston brought out her debut album, Whitney Houston, in 1985.
It is no exaggeration to say that changed the course of musical history. The album was a sensation, at a time when white male rockers were firmly entrenched in the charts, it became the best-selling debut album by a solo artist of all time. It was also the first album by a female artist to spawn three number 1 hits: Greatest Love of All, Saving All My Love For You, and How Will I Know. The album also ensured Houston was to become the first black female artist given substantial exposure on MTV, which had been repeatedly criticised for favouring white acts.
It’s widely accepted now Houston blazed a trail for other black female acts to follow. In a world where Beyoncé and Rihanna dominate the charts, it’s easy to forget this wasn’t always the way. The likes of Janet Jackson and Mariah Carey have paid tribute to the work done by Houston to open doors. Houston was also one of the first African American women to appear on the front cover of Seventeen magazine, and her starring role in the film The Bodyguard (1992) was the first time an interracial love story featured prominently in such a film.
Watch Whitney Houston sing I Will Always Love You:
Houston turned down all offers to perform in apartheid South Africa at a time when many other artists chose to ignore sanctions. Her manager Gene Harvey told Jet magazine in 1988: “Even when Whitney was modelling as a teenager, she turned down all opportunities to have magazine covers in South Africa.” Houston was the first major artist to perform in post-apartheid South Africa, in 1994. In video footage of the tour she is shown arriving on stage carrying a new South African flag, and telling the crowd “Ngiyakuthanda kakhulu!” (I love you very much).
Yet while Houston was breaking barriers for black women, the irony was that the black US community failed to warm to her for many years. In 1989, the mention of her name was greeted with boos at the Soul Train Awards, from an audience which dismissed Houston as an ‘Oreo’ (the derisive US version of South Africa’s equally derisive ‘coconut’). Houston, wrote Essence magazine in 1990, “is in the strange position of having great mass popularity without eliciting great passion, of being liked but not particularly loved, especially in the Black community. Yeah, we buy her records, but do we buy her act?” The article continued: “She just doesn’t move us the way Aretha did, the way Anita [Baker] does.”
Because Houston’s first two albums were pitched at a crossover market, combining upbeat pop with inspiring (platitude-heavy) ballads, they sold well within the white album-buying demographic. As a result, for the first years of her career Houston continually faced the accusation that she had deliberately muted her soul and R&B roots in favour of white-friendly pop.
But Houston’s appeal within the white listening public for the first years of her career was not merely because she produced bubbly pop music. It was also a result of her squeaky-clean, church-going, girl-next-door image. This was, in fact, a prerequisite for black women in the public eye at the time. Consider the case of Vanessa Williams a few years previously. In 1983 Williams had become the first black woman to win the Miss America title, but after the publication of nude photographs taken prior to her reign, she was stripped of her title.
Houston wasn’t at all like Williams, it seemed. Houston was entirely non-threatening. She gave away so little of herself in interviews – and, indeed, in her music – that she also functioned as a blank screen, upon which America could project whatever they wanted. While she was occasionally flirtatious, she was too virtuous to be sexual.
Fast-forward 12 years, and you find a hoarse-voiced Houston telling ABC’s Diane Sawyer she was “addicted to makin’ love”. What had happened in the intervening decade? In two words: Bobby Brown. Brown was a bad boy. Houston, whose romantic career up to that point had apparently been limited to dating Eddie Murphy, couldn’t get enough of him. They married in 1992.
In the famous 2002 interview with Diane Sawyer, Houston told Sawyer their marriage was passionate and turbulent. Sawyer asked if Brown was jealous of the fact that she was so much more famous. “Sometimes,” Houston replied, but from across the room Brown disputed that. Joining the conversation, he told Sawyer he was happy to allow Houston her elevated fame because he knew that “nobody can touch me as a performer”. Sawyer asked Brown if he had ever hit Houston. “No no no no no,” he replies. (Houston would tell Oprah in a 2009 interview that he had indeed slapped her.) Sawyer grilled him about his drug use. He claimed it was limited to smoking marijuana “every other day”. Houston laughed openly by his side.
By the late 90s, Houston’s relationship with the public and the media was shifting. America’s sweetheart was becoming America’s laughing stock. 2000 was an annus horribilis for Houston: marijuana was found in her suitcase at a Hawaii airport, she failed to appear at the induction of her mentor (Clive Davis) into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame, she was fired from performing at the Oscars and her childhood friend and long-time assistant Robyn Crawford resigned from Houston’s management team, citing concerns about how controlling Bobby Brown was. Drugs were increasingly suspected to be at the heart of Houston’s erratic behaviour.
When Sawyer asked Houston in 2002 whether she was on crack, Houston dismissed the suggestion. “Let’s get one thing straight,” she said, leaning forward for emphasis. “Crack is cheap. I make way too much money to smoke crack. Crack is wack.”
The fact that Houston was on crack appeared to be confirmed in 2006 when the National Enquirer ran a story featuring photos purporting to be of Whitney’s bathroom, taken by Bobby Brown’s half-sister. They showed what was essentially a crack-den, with pipes and beer cans everywhere and garbage overflowing. In 2002, though, there still seemed hope Houston could be redeemed. After all, dozens of other celebrities have had drug-related meltdowns and made successful comebacks. Sawyer asked Houston which drug she considered her biggest devil. “That would be me,” Houston replied, smiling and pausing. “The biggest devil is me. I’m either my best friend or my worst enemy.”
In the end, it seems, Houston was indeed her own worst enemy. There is a temptation to credit much of her decline to Bobby Brown, who was, after all, pre-established as a bad egg. But Brown claimed in his autobiography that it was Houston who introduced him to cocaine. In 2004 Brown had his own reality show, Being Bobby Brown, which, while ostensibly focusing on Brown, gave as much screen-time to his more famous wife. Reviews of the show were harsh: Entertainment Weekly called it “undoubtedly the most disgusting and execrable series ever to ooze its way onto television”, and suggested it manages “to rob Houston of any last shreds of dignity”.
But as Salon’s Rebecca Traister pointed out in 2006, the show overturned one central belief about Houston’s fall from grace. “There had been a pretty simple imaginative narrative about the singer’s decade-long decline: that as a victim of her own early success, she had been pushed into a public marriage to an abusive man, perhaps been badly treated and forced to live a lie, and fallen into drug addiction and depression at his hands,” Traister wrote. “But what ‘Being Bobby Brown’ made clear was that however the Houston-Brown marriage has developed over the years, it is now, if not blissful, then at the very least functionally co-dependent. And more than that, that Brown is not the only bully in the family.”
During Houston’s last years, the media gleefully chronicled her decline. The New York Post reported in 2001 that MTV had already prepared Houston’s obituary, certain she was close to death. While this is not in itself unusual – the press loves a celebrity train-smash, and paid similarly close attention to Britney Spears during her lost years – in Houston’s case, part of the fascinated scrutiny seemed to stem from morbid fascination with the fact that she had lost her central power: her voice. Like Samson shorn of his hair, Houston without a voice seemed purposeless and impotent. The last recordings of her attempts to sing make for excruciating viewing: it is as if a shambling, incompetent Houston impersonator has been thrust on to stage against her will. The voice once said to be a “Stradivarius among normal violins” was reduced to cheap ukulele.
Now that Houston is dead, the same media who once spitefully picked apart her fall, are now respectfully paying tribute. The Daily Mail eulogised the “beautiful and talented singer” just two days after having published paparazzi snaps of her stumbling out of a Hollywood nightclub. “Houston we have a problem… again!” ran the headline.
Inevitably, Houston’s life and death will be used as a cautionary tale to warn teenagers off the evils of drugs. Her story will become a modern-day fable about the dangers of fame and screeds of media columns will be produced lamenting the celebrity culture which builds artists up and then destroys them. None of this is likely to be much comfort to Houston’s mother, Cissy, 78, or Houston’s daughter Bobbi, 18, who survive her.
At the end of Sawyer’s 2002 interview with Houston, Sawyer says: “Ten years from now, give me the perfect life for Whitney Houston.”
“Retired,” laughs Houston. “Sitting, looking at my daughter grow up, watching her become a great woman of God. Grandchildren!” Her 2012 reality is tragically different. DM
Photo: Whitney Houston performs in concert at Wembley Stadium in London in this May 5, 1988 file photo. REUTERS/Peter Skingley.
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