Whitney Houston: The diva who had – and lost – it all
From her rise as a fresh-faced teen to her sudden death in an LA hotel room at 48, Nick Hasted charts the highs and lows of a remarkable life
Nick Hasted has been a film journalist since 1986. He writes about film, music, books and comics for The Independent, Sight & Sound, Uncut and Little White Lies. He has published two books: The Dark Story of Eminem (2002), and You Really Got Me: The Story of The Kinks (2011), both from Omnibus Press.
Monday 13 February 2012
There was shock, and yet minutes after the news was heard, it seemed less surprising. As with the sudden, early deaths of Amy Winehouse and Michael Jackson, the discovery of Whitney Houston's body in her LA hotel room appeared inevitable for someone who had suffered such turmoil in their life.
The full details of her death are yet to be confirmed. It has been reported, so far, that her body was found by a member of her entourage in the bath of her hotel room at the Beverly Hills Hilton. She had been due to attend a pre-Grammy awards party thrown by the man who helped form her talent, Clive Davis, a legendary judge of pop talent and craft. Attempts to resuscitate her failed. Her time of death was recorded as 3.55pm, on Saturday. After a long struggle with drink and drugs, perhaps it was not so shocking after all.
But at her peak from 1985 to the late 1990s, Houston was an influence on every major female pop star, and on the TV talent shows that now dominate the music industry. For young girls belting out "I Will Always Love You" in their bedrooms, and stars from Mariah Carey to Beyoncé and Lady Gaga, Houston was the most important pop singer of the last quarter-century.
Born into a middle-class New Jersey family on 9 August 1963, she seemed anointed for stardom. Her mother was the gospel-soul star Cissy Houston, cousin Dionne Warwick was among the 1960s' most elegant vocal stylists, and her godmother was Aretha Franklin.
But a 1986 Billboard magazine piece by Bud Scoppa revealed the complex background to her "overnight stardom", aged only 22. Arista A&R man Gerry Griffith chanced upon her in 1980 at New York club the Bottom End, when he saw the supporting act Cissy Houston let her 17-year-old daughter guest with her. Astonished by her vocal power, Griffith still judged that "she isn't quite ripe yet". It was another two years before he deemed her ready, and arranged her audition with Davis.
Three years of experiment followed, as Davis and his cohorts constructed the perfect Whitney to unleash on the world. Her strong, octave-cresting voice made her the ultimate vehicle for the "Clive ballad", a longstanding ideal, Scoppa wrote, of Davis, "a sophisticated middlebrow who adores swelling strings and sentimental refrains".
"Saving All My Love For You" was one of several songs to fit Davis's formula on a debut album, Whitney Houston, which instantly made her the biggest female star in the world. Because of her, the "Clive ballad" soon became a global norm followed by female singers and episodes of The X Factor, Britain's Got Talent and their foreign franchises.
A second album, Whitney (1987), completed a record-breaking unbroken run of seven US No 1 singles. The video for the upbeat "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" showed a smartly dressed Houston finishing a show, then secretly letting her frizzed hair down. But ballads such as "Didn't We Almost Have It All" and "I Know Him So Well" kept her in the middle of the road. "She sounds like a lonely little kid who has spent too much time with grown-ups, and has picked up a lot of their habits," Lloyd Bradley wrote in Q with perceptive concern.
It was this bland acceptability, though, which let her help a subtle yet fundamental social shift. This star of Reagan and Bush Senior's America existed a world away from the combative African-American musicians of the 1960s and 1970s. Though the notes she hit had been learned in the gospel tradition, they were not deployed with soulful pain. Her most political act was to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" in support of the Gulf War at the 1991 Super Bowl.
And yet, following Michael Jackson's lead, the sheer weight of Houston's popularity helped break MTV open to black American acts. Her middle-class respectability contrasted with uglier urban ghetto stereotypes of US black culture. Co-starring as a threatened diva with Kevin Costner in The Bodyguard (1992), their characters' interracial attraction was never an issue. Whitney was beautiful and dully nice enough to be America's first black sweetheart. She was an element in normalising African-Americans in the mainstream which ended with Obama in the White House. "I Will Always Love You", the 12 million-selling single from The Bodyguard's soundtrack, was the pinnacle of her powerhouse vocal style. She had scaled showbiz's peak, and as so often, there was only one way to go.
Then Houston married R&B star Bobby Brown on 18 July 1992, giving birth to her only child, Bobbi Kristina, the following year. Brown was a rougher proposition. He helped patent the New Jack Swing style of soul at the 1980s' end but was thrown out of boy band New Edition for lewdness. His influence was apparent on her best single, 1999's "It's Not Right But It's Okay", with a twitchy thumb-piano hook, which rippled through the pop underground.
Brown and Houston were made for each other in the worst way. The couple flew out of Hawaii in 2000 as their luggage, including marijuana laced with crack cocaine was being inspected. Charges were dropped. But Burt Bacharach, a family friend, had to sack her from performing at that year's Oscars. Brown was arrested for misdemeanour battery on her in 2004. They divorced on April 24 2007. Houston continually denied her drug habit, until a ritual confession on Oprah in 2009.
There never was a mature phase to Houston’s career, a period when adult experience lent wisdom or sorrow to her work. Her innocent image was corrupted, and her ability to work dissolved. Her 2001 re-signing with Arista, scheduling her to record six albums for $100m, proved foolishly optimistic. Her last three desultory LPs sold in puny figures compared to her peak, as she ceased to matter.
Chris Roberts, watching her UK debut at London's Wembley Arena in 1986, had reported a star who was "confident, self-possessed but without the folly of excessive ego... white-hot before an insatiable band". Simon Price saw her for The Independent in April 2010, lurching "awkwardly from one horror to the next", confused and missing the high note of "I Will Always Love You".
Houston's legacy is hard to claim as a positive one. But that doesn't lessen the shame of her decline from the hopeful belting out "Tomorrow" from Annie to the corpse discovered in an LA hotel.
Goodbye Whitney: Tributes from the music world...
'I just can't talk about it now. It's so stunning and unbelievable. I couldn't believe what I was reading coming across the TV screen.' - Her Godmother, Aretha Franklin
'She was the most beautiful woman I think I ever saw... Thank you for giving us your talent, and one of the most beautiful voices I've ever heard.' - Elton John
'First of all, I want to tell you I love you all. Second, I would like to say, I love you Whitney. The hardest thing for me to do is to come on this stage.' - Former husband Bobby Brown performing a show in Southaven, Mississippi, hours after her death
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