Whitney Houston, Beyond the Fame Machine
Serendipity isn’t always what it’s cut out to be.
But the death of Whitney Elizabeth Houston at the age of 48, her body found in a bathtub the afternoon before the Grammy Awards Show, in the same hotel where a gala honoring mega-legendary record producer Clive Davis, who discovered and promoted the singer from her teens onward, was a trainload of serendipity that couldn’t help but put a ghost in the machine of the always slickly fueled awards show.
Houston’s death sent a shock wave through the proceedings, through the land of music videos, and the gathering of pop, rock, hip hop, rap, country music stars and anybody (and is there anybody that hasn’t) who ever heard the first thrilling surge of “I Will Always Love You.”. The song and the images of Houston at her youthful, stunning, energetic peak were everywhere by Sunday and Sunday news time. Houston with a pedigree and a gift that fast-tracked her to super-stardom in the music world hadn’t had a major hit or album in years, but she got one almost instantly when news of her passing burst out like baleful thunder, as a compilation album streaked to the top of the lists like a rocket. Such is the death of music stars: the same happened to Elvis, John Lennon and Michael Jackson.
In the news — in spite of the Rev. Al Sharpton’s admonition to celebrate the life of Houston, to concentrate on the joy her music and charisma brought to people — it was a split and inevitable decision, a rise-and-fall story of extreme proportions.
Here was this gifted young girl — a teen who led her church choir in New Jersey—with a mother who was a famous gospel singer, a godmother who was the queen of soul and a cousin that was in some ways the perfect interpreter of pop music as written by Burt Bacharach. That trio would be Cissy Houston, Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick, and they would provide the musical influences that were the essence of her singing. Producer Clive Davis, after hearing her sing backup with Chaka Khan and other singers, guided her career and signed her to a contract.
She was almost perfection: thin and slender, she was on the cover of Seventeen magazine, she spawned hits with a voice that could break chandeliers and she hit incredible notes that lasted longer than Michael Jordan’s hang-time. She had the best combination of all — an effusive, charismatic personality, a voice nobody could top nor has anyone since, an astonishing beauty made for the age of music videos. In the 1980s and 1990s, she was arguably the biggest female star in the pop music firmament, rolling out a string of hits like “How Will I Know,” “The Greatest Love of All,” “Saving All My Love For You” and the infectious “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” where Houston, with a rich, birds-nest Afro, danced with everybody that saw the video.
Then came “The Bodyguard,” a classy trashy, perfect formula movie that critics disdained and predicted a quick departure. Let’s see: There was Houston, no actress but able to do a world-famous diva star, there was Kevin Costner with a brand new rough-butch haircut and only the biggest male movie star in the world at the time, there was a pop crossover soundtrack that sold millions maybe billions, there was crossover romance and there was “I Will Always Love You,” which Houston managed to sing twice. What’s not to like?
That was followed by a part in “Waiting to Exhale,” a serious black-chick flick and a big hit, cementing her bonafides as superstar, Hollywood-style.
And if the story had stopped there, it would be perfect.
But it didn’t.
Because Houston met and married Bobby Brown, a volatile R&B singer with a record — and it wasn’t hit singles but a rap sheet. They loved and battled, and pretty soon you could read all about Houston every time you stepped into a supermarket checkout line about fights with Brown, alleged abuse and drug abuse of all kinds. When given a litany of drugs on national television of drugs she abused, there were many, many, a shocking admission by a major public entertainment figure of her stature.
Nothing was ever the same. There were more fights with Brown, separation and a divorce, and Houston got custody of their only child. There were shoddy live concerts and cancellations. It seemed as if her life had become one big train wreck, in spite of the emotional support of friends and family. There were comeback attempts, but her voice and her great, natural beauty had taken a beating.
The sadness is that it’s a familiar story, sans details and particulars — those great soaring rises to fame and wealth, and the long fall down. The music industry especially is full of such stories. The surprise was not that her sudden death Saturday was a shock, but that the shock was not a shock of surprise.
The cause of her death was not announced officially by the Los Angeles County coroner’s officer, awaiting results of an autopsy, but rumors of drug use and instances of recent erratic behavior once again were the talk of the blogosphere.
Watching the Grammy Awards show was to see an example of a world of which for a long time she was the queen, but it’s a kingdom that has rashly changed since her reign. It was full of fireworks, huge production numbers by the like of Ms. Perry, and Rhianna, mismatched to Cold Play, and voices that couldn’t match Houston’s on a good day. It was full of old-timers, the Beach Boys saddled up, and sometimes saddled with old band-mate and genius Brian Wilson who sat like a tree at the piano, Paul McCartney needing a hundred violins or so to bring off his number, mixed with another controversial Brown named Chris, and the impeccably wispy and dull Taylor Swift, whose pouty “Mean.” which she sang forever, seemed to be the best that country music had to over this year.
When an oh-so-brief clip of Houston singing you know what or "the Star-Spangled Banner" appeared, you knew there was no one there who could match or let alone top her. Her gifts were so apparent, her voice such a gift, that they needed little embellishment. It should be said that Jennifer Hudson, no slouch in the big voice department, honored her well with her rendition of Houston’s greatest hit in a respectful, tear-producing tribute to Houston at the end of the program.
The rest, unfortunately, will not be silence, but endless blogging, rumors and tweeting. Once again, Houston will rule the checkout line.
We would all be better off to turn aside from the roar and gossip of the fame machine. Better yet, find somebody to dance with. And that song will always be there, in your head and heart, when all the Enquirers and Access Hollywood reporters run out of breath.