One year ago today, Whitney Houston, the outstanding talent of her generation, slipped into a drug-induced oblivion and drowned in her bathtub. Though her reputation had been corroded by a decade and a half of drug abuse, an imperious temperament and relentless criticisms of her undeniably altered voice, she remained very much one of the grand dames of American music, name-checked by every singer who followed her and ranked as the most decorated female musician ever, with more than 400 awards.
Her fame rested on more than just her once incomparable vocal abilities, her star persona was forged from the immense likeability, a warm charisma that underscored her celebrity and the innocence she radiated at the outset of her career, which never fully disappeared.
Her at times ugly diva attitude was forever shot through with a humility, which made her audience feel she was singing not just to them, but for them. Even in her grandiosity she remained a voice from the populous, and conversely though she was one of the world's most successful entertainers, there remained an almost operatic air of tragedy about Whitney, culminating in her untimely death. Her endlessly circulated substance abuse, her disastrous love life, and her drug-ravaged voice all added a poignancy to even her most saccharine hits, and drew distinct parallels with the life and career of another ill-fated icon, Judy Garland.
Both women endured fame from a young age with Whitney being born into an extended family of high-profile entertainers (including Dionne Warwick and Aretha Franklin) and singing back-up for Chaka Khan at age fifteen, whilst Judy was signed to MGM at age thirteen and playing Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz at sixteen. Fame came fast for the pair, and the demands of their respective out-sized careers have been well documented. Tabloid journalists hounded them both until the day they died with salacious cocktails of gossip and hype, and neither artist’s substance abuse was secret. Whitney’s drug use generated more headlines than her music, and Judy’s alcoholism lost her countless roles and led her to multiple suicide attempts. Of course, partying to excess in Hollywood is not news, but in the case of Houston and Garland, there is most definitely a recurring motif of the two women using drugs and alcohol, not to enhance their glamorous, decadent lifestyles, but rather to escape the weight and responsibility they both carried as generators of such huge revenues.
Quite clearly, from a very early age both were exploited and overworked, Garland’s endless medicated workdays on the back lot are well known, likewise Houston’s international chart-topping success came not without a price. Their respective successes led to bitter familial scenes and eventually, estrangement with their parents. Whitney’s father (at one point her business manager) sued her for several million dollars, whilst Judy’s Mother died in a car park estranged from the daughter who labeled her, “no good for anything except to create chaos and fear.”
To compound the twin pressures of fame and family (and exacerbated by both), Whitney and Judy were both tortured by their unspeakable sexualities. Both were married women, in fact Garland married five men, but both were surrounded by not so small talk regarding their female lovers. Much speculation swirled around Garland’s relationships with allegedly gay men (most notably husband Vincente Minnelli) as well as her own rumoured love affairs with such beauties as Katharine Hepburn. Houston too was rumoured to have had high profile same-sex partners, including an alleged late eighties love triangle with actors Jodie Foster and Kelly McGillis, and the relationship which some say defined her life, that with her executive assistant, and life long friend, Robyn Crawford. The alleged romance between Houston and Crawford was said to have been called off for the sake of Whitney’s good-girl image, and was supplanted by the supposedly more fitting union with Bobby Brown. As recently as last month, Cissy Houston (Whitney’s mother) told Oprah Winfrey that she would have never have condoned or supported Whitney if she had come out as a lesbian.
Neither pre-Stonewall Garland nor raised-in-the-church Houston were able to live their sexualities openly, not only was it not the right cultural moment, but more so it was bad for business. No mid-century movie star could be openly bisexual, and no all American pop idol could be a lesbian, both women found their successes colliding painfully with their personal lives, and enhancing their sense of isolation. It is hardly surprising that both women came to be icons to the queer community, without ever coming “out” they both managed to express in their performances a fellowship of the excluded, and a melancholic prayer for freedom.
As such, the tragedy that emanates from those recordings which survive Whitney and Judy is palpable. The disastrous love affairs, the addictions, and the increasingly ravaged voices flavor those songs, which have themselves become iconic and evocative, tinged as they are with a hidden heartache. In the face of scheming families, homophobic infrastructures, drugs and tabloid scandal mongering, the signature songs of Garland and Houston sound ever more bittersweet. In “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” Garland eulogizes something she can never have, whilst with “I Will Always Love You”, Houston celebrates what is lost. Both anthems mark out, even in their apparently asinine nature, a territory of despair which is yet inseparable from insatiable dreaming – and that is the great gift of their artistry. Garland’s repertoire is a catalogue of desolation ("The Man That Got Away", "You Made Me Love You") but Houston too (though famed for upbeat classics) expresses an underlying pathos even on dance numbers such "I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)" and "Love Will Save The Day" – tales of hope in the face of dejection, which belie their bubblegum production.
Both Garland and Houston, sang songs of sorrow from such great heights, and the meaning willed out. Having fought to be the huge stars they became, and finding themselves locked in a fight to the death with their own celebrity, Garland and Houston invested their material with such devout sincerity that queer ears the world over pricked up. The combination of exploited naivety, mournful foreboding, relentless repression and utterly unique singing voices, gave unprecedented authenticity to their work.
That which they couldn’t say, the confusions, betrayals and losses, hung like a sparkling miasma over every note they sung, generations felt that they were hearing a truth when they heard these women sing, and truly, deeply felt the loss when they died. Though it is impossible to ignore those photographs of a bone thin Houston singing at the Michael Jackson concert, or to forget the many times Garland appeared drunk and slurring on stage, what remains after these embarrassments evaporate, is their unfakeable talent.
Their tragic demises act not merely as a warning against the age-old excesses of success, but as a rebuke to us, as a celebrity obsessed society, for having allowed our greatest artists to be isolated and enslaved by tabloid gossip, moral grandstanding and lust for cash. Garland and Houston leave us a legacy of struggles not quite overcome, and offer us a challenge to stand up and be who we feel ourselves to be, to live the free lives they were denied, and to sing our own songs of liberation, in their honor.
La John Joseph will be touring his autobiographical, raucously political and accidentally profound, Boy in a Dress which follows the life story thus far of La JohnJoseph, a third-gendered, fallen Catholic, ex-fashion model from the wrong side of the tracks, from the council estates of Merseyside to the strip clubs of New York.
The show will be running in London at the Battersea Arts Centre from the 14-16th March, after a UK tour through Liverpool (26th Feb) Bristol (28th Feb - 2nd March), Manchester (5-6th March), and Brighton (8th March).