Whitney Houston, R.I.P.

Houston was, literally and metaphorically, the anthem performer to end all anthem performers

Sometimes, news is sad not because it’s surprising but because it isn’t. Whitney Houston, who became a recognizably troubled artist late in the last century, was denying crack use by 2002, and was admitting to it by 2009, has died at the age of 48. Every major news organization had canned obituaries ready (it’s been reported that MTV prepared one in 2001); the CBC’s struck multiple notes of grim accuracy.

The New York Times wrote that Houston “possesses one of her generation’s most powerful gospel-trained voices, but she eschews many of the churchier mannerisms of her forerunners. She uses ornamental gospel phrasing only sparingly, and instead of projecting an earthy, tearful vulnerability, communicates cool self-assurance and strength, building pop ballads to majestic, sustained peaks of intensity.”

Houston’s decision not to follow the more soulful inflections of singers like Franklin drew criticism by some who saw her as playing down her black roots to go pop and reach white audiences. The criticism would become a constant refrain through much of her career. She was even booed during the Soul Train Awards in 1989.

The Times found a polite way to say that Whitney was the possessor of a terrific vocal instrument but no abilities as a song interpreter. It wasn’t a question of “black roots”, or if it was, they were the kind of “black roots” that a young Amy Winehouse was somehow able to find in the record shops of North London. Houston would go on to inspire a generation of performers to overpower audiences with sheer vocal force; it is not quite true that she sang everything loud and high, but it is probably fair to say that in all the classic Whitney Houston hits, the chorus is something you sit through to get to “the moment”. And that “moment” is always loud and high. (Did she really sing in churches as much as she is supposed to have? Imagine the din.)

For every hundred people who know her fire-engine version of “I Will Always Love You”, maybe three have heard the Dolly Parton original—an admittedly schlocky number, but one in which the individual words at least have some emotional impetus of their own. And yet it took Whitney’s rendering to make Dolly unimaginably rich off that song. Houston was, literally and metaphorically, the anthem performer to end all anthem performers. In her songs as in her life, she took a powerful, even innovative shortcut to success. Yet when she reached an age at which emotional maturity must take over from laryngeal athleticism, she had no apparent ability to respond, coming to lean heavily on producers, dance-club remixes, and duets with other singers. Viewed in retrospect, this part of her career was much longer than the time she spent as a leading global star—about twice as long, really.

She did not cope well with the search for a second act, and that is the element that strikes me as the saddest. Whitney Houston’s original public image emphasized, to the point of obnoxiousness, her status as the heiress to a great tradition of song: mother Cissy, godmother Aretha, cousin Dionne. Houston didn’t sound much like any of them, and doesn’t seem to have learned much else from them, either. These are all women who managed to grow old with reasonable grace. Whitney, it turns out, couldn’t pull off either half of that equation. If she couldn’t survive mega-celebrity with such advantages, how the hell does anybody do it?

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