There was a radio phone-in the other day, on BBC 6Music, where people had to request songs by women with nonchalant or bored voices. Listeners asked for the sultry drone of Nico, or the icy electro of Miss Kitten. Somebody even proposed Grace Jones, pointing out she sang with a commanding air of indifference. Nobody, but nobody, suggested Whitney Houston. This is because Whitney Houston had a gigantic lightning strike of a voice, as far from nonchalant as any could possibly be.
Her's was a voice so large and so convincing – so very, very bothered – that it swept through all the awards and records held by female vocalists. Her version of "I Will Always Love You" became the biggest-selling song by a solo female artist in the history of several countries, including this one. I was 15 years old at the time, obsessed by the pop charts every Sunday, and when that song was still at number one after an unprecedented ten weeks, it felt as if Whitney had been holding that high note all the while. I had avidly followed her since I was much younger, reading all about her in my pop magazines. Well, as much as one could, since she didn't seem to have as juicy a popstar life story as some. A middle-class Baptist girl who had never so much as had a boyfriend or smoked a cigarette, she was a goody two-shoes, as pure as her voice that never diverted from its course. And yet, after marrying Bobby Brown and developing a drug habit, it did, and so did her career, and so did she. The causes of death are not yet known, but to die in a bathtub in a hotel room in middle age, only days after being photographed looking dishevelled and confused – well. Things are obviously not looking great.
For so many of her chart-topping heyday years she was a passionate musician, but not in the way that Piaf, or Billie Holiday were, where the cracks in their lives showed through – all those swallowed disappointments, nights of abandon and mornings of regret, all hissing through like radio static. Whitney did glossy 80s and 90s pop, R'n'B, soul, with its attendant seamless production values. She had the lungs of America. She spoke to women around the world about determination. She sang about men cheating on her, but also about her helping a married man to cheat. It was lustful and commanding. It was schmaltzy, cheesy even. Yet as one of the glossiest of 80s and 90s popstars, her sheen had appeared to her fans as intrinsic and permanent.
Even when the shame of her later years was compounded by the release of photos of her dirty bathroom, looking like one belonging to a crack addict as she was rumoured to be, it still wasn't obvious she would die such a sorry rock-star death. Glossy pop stars might go off the rails, but they do not actually leave us in this way. The least glossy end to an extraordinary life.