The long, sad fall of Whitney Houston

The voice, the meteoric rise and the slow-motion death spiral

The long, sad fall of a singular star

‘The Voice’: Houston inspired and paved the way for black women in mainstream music

“There are no second acts in American life,” F. Scott Fitzgerald once famously wrote—a line repeatedly discredited at the Grammy Awards on Sunday night as the stage was dominated by musical legends enjoying second, even third, acts: Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, the Beach Boys. Fitzgerald couldn’t possibly have predicted that America would come to crave, even expect, second-act celebrity redemption—and none more than a comeback after illness, addiction or scandal. Hence the thunderous applause for Alzheimer’s-afflicted Glen Campbell. And the disconcertingly enthusiastic cheers for Chris Brown’s return after pleading guilty to felony assault charges in the 2009 beating of former girlfriend Rihanna.

Yet Fitzgerald’s line did hold true, ominously so, for a legend whose death at age 48 overshadowed the proceedings. On the eve of “music’s biggest night,” Whitney Houston was found in a bathtub in the Beverly Hilton hotel, felled by a toxic combination of prescription drugs and alcohol as her staff, including two bodyguards, sat outside unable to protect her.

It was a tragic end for a singular force in pop music in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Dubbed “The Voice,” Houston possessed a rare ability to span octaves and genres. She paved the way for black women in mainstream music and inspired the next generation. And the ornate, melismatic singing style she made seem effortless would become the lofty standard for American Idol-style contests. “One of the greatest singers I’ve ever heard” Tony Bennett said on Sunday, a night in which Houston’s low-concept vocal prodigy seemed rare, even anachronistic, compared to the self-conscious shock-and-awe production values of Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj. It had been 12 years since she had even been nominated for a Grammy.

The sad spectre of drugged-out musical legends dying at mid-life surrounded by pill bottles and an enabling coterie, however, is familiar to the point of cliché—Judy Garland at age 47, Elvis Presley at 42, Michael Jackson at 50. The loss of great talent, and of hope itself, still shocks. Even in the case of Houston, whose slow-motion death spiral had been on display for more than a decade. For her there would be no second act: her once monumental voice had fallen into disrepair. The woman who possessed it had lost her way: she’d become a regular target of mockery. Maya Rudolph rolled out her popular impression of a jittery, unhinged Houston on Saturday Night Live as recently as December.

As spectacle, Rudolph’s display was a lifetime away from the 19-year-old who came to national attention in 1983 on The Merv Griffin Show. The quietly confident teenager wowed with her performance of Home from The Wiz, a taste of the crowd-pleasing, bombastic ballads that would catapult her to fame. Choir-trained at New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, N.J., Houston’s musical pedigree was impressive: the Grammy Award-winning gospel singer Cissy Houston was her mother, Aretha Franklin her godmother, Dionne Warwick a cousin. The singer was then newly signed with Arista Records; legendary producer Clive Davis put the teenager under contract after seeing her perform with her mother at a Manhattan supper club. Davis controlled Houston’s early career brilliantly, cherry-picking inspirational ballads and bubblicious pop tunes tailored to the powerful mezzo-soprano. Houston was a money-making machine during the ’80s, breaking records along with gender and race barriers: Saving All My Love for You from her 1985 debut album was the first of seven consecutive number one Billboard singles. Whitney in 1987 would be the first album by a woman to debut in Billboard’s top spot.

Dubbed “Miss Black America” by Time, Houston embodied an emerging genre: pan-global corporate pop. She sold more than 170 million albums, singles and videos. But her sanitized image and highly produced music also won derision: she was nicknamed “Whitey” Houston and booed at the 1989 Soul Train Awards, the same fateful night she met R & B singer Bobby Brown. If Houston was looking for an image makeover, she found it with the thuggish bad boy whose has-been status provided a polar opposite to her successful good-girl image. The couple married in 1992 and had a daughter, Bobbi Kristina, the following year. By then, Houston’s career was diversifying: her first movie, The Bodyguard, set box-office records and spawned a top-selling soundtrack driven by the hit single I Will Always Love You. Her box-office mettle was reconfirmed in 1995 when Waiting to Exhale opened at number one, a first for a movie starring four black actresses.

Decisions made over the following decade proved the woman behind The Voice was fallibly human, and tired of being a musical vessel. In a 1990 interview, she voiced frustration with her fame: “The bitter pill you have to pay is sacrifice of your own life.” The next year, she cancelled a Toronto show at the CNE grandstand, along with her entire Canadian tour. Her people blamed a “persistent throat condition,” though a week from showtime only 11,000 of 20,000 seats had been sold. By decade’s end, Houston’s diva status was wobbly. A 1998 album and tour was successful, as was her star turn at the 1999 VH1 Divas concert alongside Tina Turner and Cher. Reports of erratic behaviour and drug addiction intensified after she was fired from performing at the 2000 Academy Awards.

A notorious 2002 interview with Diane Sawyer further stoked speculation as an alarmingly thin, fidgety Houston denied rumours of a crack cocaine habit with a raspy voice: “Crack is cheap. I make too much money ever to smoke crack . Crack is whack.” Less reported was the singer’s admission that, during the 1990s, the magic had gone out of performing for her. Singing wasn’t “any fun anymore,” she said, noting bitterly, “it’s about the money.” Yet she claimed she was “back on the right path”: “I am not self-destructive. I am not a person who wants to die.” When asked what her “biggest devil” was, Houston blamed herself: “That would be me. It’s my deciding.”

She stayed with Brown for three more scandal-saturated years—through his arrest for misdemeanour battery for allegedly striking her in 2003, through the 2005 gonzo reality show Being Bobby Brown that showcased the couple’s chaotic, conflict-filled relationship. Houston came across as a foul-mouthed, confrontational woman with numerous vices, among them a vocally destructive cigarette habit. The following year, her reputation took another blow when National Enquirer ran photos allegedly of her squalid bathroom after a drug binge.

By the time of her 2007 divorce, Houston was working on a 2009 “comeback” album, I Look to You, her first in six years. Davis pulled out all the stops to promote the album, which landed at number one despite mixed reviews. A massive publicity blitz included a two-hour sit-down with Oprah Winfrey in which Houston revealed that she and Brown smoked crack but that her more damaging addiction was to her husband: “He was my drug. It was me and him together, and we were partners, and that’s what my high was—him.”

A 2010 European tour, her first in 11 years, was a sad spectacle of missed high notes and cancelled performances. In May 2011, she’d returned to rehab as an outpatient, citing drug and alcohol problems. By December, she was promoting her new movie Sparkle, featuring the time-honoured theme of a singer grappling with drug addiction. Houston was not playing that star, however, but the mother of a singer played by American Idol alum Jordin Sparks. In the days following Houston’s death, the movie has been touted as her big return: “She is genius in the movie and it would have been a giant comeback for her,” executive producer Howard Rosenman told the Los Angeles Times.

Talk of comeback swirled around Houston, though its form was unclear. The rigours of the sort of Vegas tenure enjoyed by Céline Dion seemed unlikely. Recently it was reported she’d been offered a position as a judge on Simon Cowell’s The X Factor. But her personal demons held more interest. The day before her death, the YouTube entertainment show Hollyscoop reported that a “dishevelled” Houston—blood on her leg and scratches on her arm—had to be escorted from a Hollywood club with her 18-year-old daughter. “We are happy to see Whitney back out in the scene, even if she is acting a little crazy,” reporter Stephanie Bauer said gleefully. “Cause, I’ll admit it—it’s a lot more fun to watch!” That night, Houston had joined Grammy nominee Kelly Price on stage to sing Jesus Loves Me, her last public performance. The next night, Davis’s annual Grammy Eve party went on at the Beverly Hilton as Houston’s body lay four floors up. “I’m personally devastated by the loss of someone who has meant so much to me,” Davis told the crowd, before ending his speech: “Now, ladies and gentlemen, let the music begin.’’ And with it, Whitney Houston’s final comeback as the centrepiece of an industry’s showy grief began as well.

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