We lost Whitney. She was 48 years old and in her hotel room in L.A. and heading to Clive Davis’ party. And then she was gone. Of course it’s not that simple. Houston’s public spiral and the way she mangled herself while escaping her pop princess shackles seemed a never-ending spectacle that threatened to overshadow her stunning talent.
The legacy of Whitney Elizabeth Houston begins with a legendary mother and remarkable family ties. Whitney was born the daughter of an upright singer with one more octave than her own. Cissy Houston could sing as well as (if not better than) many of the singers she supported as a background vocalist, including Whitney’s godmother Aretha Franklin. Yet she chose to side step the scrutiny and soul-suck that can be fame, opting to raise her son and daughter in the relative safety of the shadows of the spotlight.
Whitney was beautiful enough to model, and she did so successfully as a teenager. She also toured nightclubs performing with her mother and at only 15, she provided background vocals on Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman”- a song she would later remake for “The Bodyguard.” In 1981, she became one of the earliest Black models to make the cover of Seventeen. She was long and lean with a tiny soft Afro she wore like a halo. Her face was thin with the kind of symmetry and fine features everyone agrees are pleasing. Her rich, brown glowing skin served as a quiet affirmation to Black girls everywhere. That same year, with the measured blessing of her parents and the well wishes of her famous cousin Dionne Warwick, Whitney signed to Clive Davis’ Arista Records and the world was introduced to that remarkable voice.
Houston’s three octave range was always less impressive than her control and her power. With her perfect pitch and modulation, she soared through the most difficult pieces of music effortlessly. Her choice of a tracksuit for the 1991 Super Bowl seemed strangely casual when she took to the field to perform the National Anthem. The one and a half octave range song is a mountain climb for most singers, but Whitney smiled through her strong, straightforward delivery like an uphill runner who can keep a fast clip and an easy conversation. There is simply no better performance of the song on film.
By then, Whitney had been a superstar nearly a decade, submitting one flawless live performance and chart topping album after another. If the 70s-soul music she’d grown up on was about Chaka Khan-style strapless silk jumpsuits and musical freedom, Whitney sacrificed that ease for a sound that was 80s shoulder pad polished with a pop sheen. Under Davis’ guidance, Whitney became our first huge, global crossover soul singer. Diana Ross enjoyed such wide acceptance, but Whitney had the vocal ability of a Florence Ballard and the amplification of growing global technology. The 415 awards she received throughout her career (a Guinness world record), and nearly 200 million records she’s sold to date only partly tell of her influence.
Whitney’s style of showmanship, scale and flawless style are the reason American Idol and other talent shows captivate the public imagination. She was such a dominant singer that she made solo singing the definitive American performance style. Her instincts and training were gospel and that truth transformed some of her more soulless pop song selections, particularly when she performed them live. A song like “How Will I Know” could have easily gone to a lesser singer like Madonna but Whitney’s strength as a vocalist gave weight to even the most vaporous pieces of songwriting. When she was able to play with truly great songs, like Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” she uplifted it and us all at once.
It is not too soon to write about Whitney’s demons. No matter what the autopsy reveals, we lost our great beauty with the greater voice too soon because she never won her decades long battle with addiction. The public came to know of her problems when she married Bobby Brown. But music industry insiders, especially those close enough to know her as “Nippy”, knew she’d had a problem with cocaine from the beginning. Insiders always recognized that she was more Newark Black church girl than the debutante image that was paraded before the press. Away from the cameras, she swore like a sailor and partied with hard drugs. Her dysfunction could barely be hidden in her long marriage and she and her husband made decisions (such as starring in “Being Bobby Brown” a Sid and Nancy style reality show Houston later came to regret) that exploited, rather than treated their addictions.
In 2009, when Whitney went on Oprah-seemingly high-to speak candidly about her issues and what she was insisting was her recovery, she was slippery and it was sad. Surprisingly, Oprah let her speed talk her way through the interview, never interrupting Whitney or even posing a loving challenge to the singer’s obvious lies. Wendy Williams, a popular New York radio host in the 90’s and early 2000s, took to the air after Whitney’s late 2002 interview with Diane Sawyer and openly wept about the singer’s behavior, remembering her own days as a manipulative coke addict and expressing her disbelief at the Sawyer performance. Her on-air excoriation earned her a call from a very not-sober Whitney herself, which Wendy recorded, and made the daily intro to her show. Williams may have been well intentioned in exposing Whitney as an active addict, but in the end Whitney was a celebrity, and her addiction was to be exploited.
I recently interviewed Whitney on-air for BET from the set of the “Sparkle” remake in Detroit. Her longtime publicist came to me, as longtime publicists of troubled superstars are paid to do, and whispered strict parameters meant to prohibit challenging questions. Still, Houston was in a film about a young singing family of women whose lives are ruined by drugs as they try to make it in the music industry. Of course I went there. Whitney was playing the mother role to Jordin Sparks and I wanted to know if she remembered any early advice from her own mother as she began her career. Whitney smiled, rolled her eyes and remembered a Cissy Houston who would have locked her in her room if she weren’t an adult: “She really, really, did not want me to be in the entertainment business, she was worried about me. She knew what the fame game is all about.”
Addiction is not a fame problem. Addiction is a medical condition. Fame may make it less treatable—there are limitless soft places to land that prevent the proverbial “rock bottom” and paid entourages who will make attempts to block a star from an interviewer’s challenging questions. Few are the friends who would fight back the dealers who arrive on set, or in the hallways of the studio. Even then, no one can save an addict but herself. Addiction can’t be prayed or wished away. Recovery requires great vigilance. Former cocaine addicts are unconvincing as “casual” drinkers and those who love them must also carefully monitor their use of prescription drugs. Addicts need strong, supportive, sober friends who circle them and then rejoin that circle when the addict relapses.
Modern stars are simultaneously coddled and mocked for their addiction. Our collective voyeurism, schadenfreude and hypocritical rush to judgment would suggest that our own families are junkie free. In a country where addiction is criminalized rather than being treated as the national epidemic that it is, we were both too quick to accept Whitney’s post-divorce narrative of recovery and far too willing to gaze upon her many public car wrecks. It is especially heartbreaking when our most widely beloved artists, those whose work gives our lives such rich meaning, are lost in and to the loneliness of addiction. We all wished to see Whitney whole again, but not 48 hours before she died in a Beverly Hills hotel room, she staggered-bloodied and photographed-from a Hollywood club.
Cynics will remind you that as Clive Davis’ annual pre-Grammy celebration took place without his beloved muse, the entire room had been anticipating her early death for a decade. But that doesn’t make her death any less jarring. Tonight’s award ceremony has been recalibrated to celebrate Whitney and we wait, cross-toed, for a tribute that’s worthy of our icon.
Whitney Houston was a featherweight, grand beauty, a whale of a singer and a fragile, tortured superstar who is finally free of her addiction. Her body of work is an eternal testimony to her dignity, grace and her out-of- this-world ability. Her life, which only those closest to her will ever truly know in full, tells a more complicated story.
dream hampton has written about culture for 20 years. She’s a mother, an activist and an award-winning filmmaker. She lives in Detroit. Follow her on Twitter @dreamhampton.