Whitney had it all. The looks, the heritage and that elemental voice. So where did it all go so wrong? Mark Simpson on the diva who fell to earth
(Originally appeared in The Independent, 15 September 2002)
I was never a proper fan of Whitney Houston – it wasn’t necessary.
Whitney was something that simply happened to you, whether you took notice or not, like the weather – though if Whitney was the weather, it was always very, very sunny. Whitney was so blindingly, scorchingly successful in the 1980s and early 1990s, that she was pop music.
She was the mainstream air that we all breathed, the air that MTV, car and workplace radios conducted into our heads. Her debut album Whitney Houston went double-platinum overnight. She then collected seven consecutive US number ones, outstripping the Beatles and Elvis. Not bad for a skinny 22-year-old black girl from New Jersey.
But then, as we were told over and over again, Whitney wasn’t just any skinny black girl from the wrong side of the Hudson: she was Soul Aristocracy, the daughter of Cissy Houston (acclaimed singer with The Sweet Inspirations, backing vocalist for Elvis), goddaughter of Aretha Franklin and niece of Dionne Warwick. But for all this pedigree, her Nefertitian looks and a voice like a fifth element that made earth, wind, fire and water seem insubstantial by comparison, the most striking, and possibly most irresistible, thing about Whitney has always been that it is very difficult to believe that she bothers to mean any of the words she sings, however well she sings them.
Except, that is, for one word: “I”. When Whitney sings the personal pronoun you are left in no doubt that this word means something very special indeed. Which is why her ballads are so funny and so terrifying all at once: “The grea-test love of all is hap-pen-ing to MEEEEEEEEEE!”. This is also why the country singer Dolly Parton’s earlier interpretation of “I Will Always Love You” with its delicate, charming, make-believe masochism had more soul than Whitney’s bullet-proof Kevlar version used in The Bodyguard (1992), the massive popularity of which confirmed her status as the world’s No 1 superstar (and favourite taped singer at funerals).
Mind you, the supersonic nuclear blast-wave of Ms Houston’s version – “IAEYAEYAEYEA!!!!!” – just flattens everything before it. Whitney’s voice didn’t need any soul; it was pure Will. Whitney is speaking a frightening truth here about romantic love: it’s a form of egotism. “I will always love you” is a stalking, psychotic declaration of a love for one’s own ability to love, regardless of all obstacles, such as, say, the beloved’s indifference. In fact, next to Ms Willpower’s transcendent egotism, that other bullying Mistress of the 1980s, Ms Blonde Ambition, is just a goofy backing dancer who got lucky.
But now, 10 years on, Whitney’s ego isn’t quite what it used to be. Nor is she, it turns out, quite so invulnerable. In the last decade she has suffered a legion of personal and professional disasters as messy as she used to be squeaky clean, and appears to be struggling with an alleged drug habit that many worry could overwhelm her completely.
But all this means she’s now interesting! And for something other than the sheer scale of her success and the preternatural power of her voice (which, it is rumoured, may anyway not be what it used to be).
A new Channel 4 documentary, Whitney Houston: The True Story, examines the rise and fall and rise – and possible final fall – of the Whitney Empire of the Ego, though, as you might secretly hope, the programme focuses rather more on the fall, which rather a lot of pride seems to have gone before. The photographer for the cover of I’m Your Baby Tonight recounts how Whitney kept her the rest of her staff waiting on set 12 hours, and when she finally showed there was no apology, explanation or even embarrassment. A promoter recalls how a concert was cancelled 15 minutes before it was due to start. “There was no explanation and no suggestion of it being rescheduled,” he whines, like the mere mortal he is.
For those prone to the German vice of schadenfreude – i.e. most of us – there’s plenty of shameful joy to be had. We hear about the jeers she received at the Soul Train Awards in 1989 from a black audience who felt she was too “white”. The violent, co-dependent but enduring marriage to “bad-boy” rapper Bobby Brown. The marijuana drug-bust in 2000 and her reported indignation that the drug laws might apply to her. The persistent accusations of lesbianism, including from her own husband. Her wraith-like appearance at the Michael Jackson anniversary concert in 2001. Her removal from the Academy Awards Ceremony in the same year by her old friend Burt Bacharah for allegedly forgetting the words to her songs.
And perhaps most poignant of all, the Spin magazine journalist who witnessed a dazed-looking Ms Houston playing the piano – in a room which had no piano – and who opines that “the general consensus seems to be that she’s a complete junkie… There are stories every day about her having died, being on the brink of dying, having just checked in to hospital…”
Alas, with the exception of Whitney’s make-up artist who is touchingly loyal, there is a shortage here of members of her inner circle dishing the dirt or anything at all. But then, as one forthright American female journalist puts it, “She’s the cash cow. Nobody wants to upset her.” The producer Sam Kingsley explains: “A number of people close to Whitney, including Whitney’s former manager, did agree to be interviewed but when they realised she hadn’t given her royal assent they quickly withdrew.”
Real revelations about Whitney’s private life are much more likely to appear in the tabloid press which possesses a chequebook large enough to wean embittered confidantes off Ms Houston’s monetary udders.
Perhaps no one has more stories and kisses to tell than Robyn Crawford, the childhood girl friend and close business associate assumed by many to have been Whitney’s lover since the early Eighties. “She wouldn’t speak to us at all,” says Kingsley. “She’s rumoured to have been given a big payoff, post Bobby Brown, which includes a silence clause.”
While Whitney may at her peak have come to represent a will even purer than her voice, it wasn’t purely her own. “Whitney” was a product of the ambition and determination of several people. Robyn, an intelligent, shrewd and imposing woman. Her mother Cissy, who never got the recognition for her own talents she felt she deserved (when Whitney’s career took off at the stripling age of 22, she reportedly told friends over and over again “and to think we’ve waited so many years for this to happen!”). And one flamboyant white man – the Svengali president of Arista Records Clive Davis.
Clive signed Whitney when she was just 19. He realised that Whitney possessed a great talent and could be a very successful recording artist but he also realised that she could be much more than that. She could be the biggest recording star in the world.
In Whitney Houston: The True Story, Kenneth Reynolds, marketing director at Arista Records, recounts: ‘”Clive had a formula already. Whitney was just a talent to mould. She had to lose the gospel roots. The early version of ‘Saving All My Love’ sounded like the new Aretha Franklin. But Clive didn’t like it – ‘No, it’s too black’. Clive also complained that the cover of Whitney’s first album made her look ‘too ethnic’. He wanted her to look more like everyone else.”‘
So Whitney was put in blond wigs and colourful make-up that made her light-black skin look even lighter (in the video for “How Will I Know” she looks as if she is wearing a basket of dyed poodles on her head). But Clive Davis was proved right – Whitney became huge instead of just successful. She became pop music.
But by the end of the 1980s tastes were changing. Hip hop and R ‘n’ B, black music that wore its “ethnic” and “street” credentials on its sleeve, was the new pop – in other words, it was what the white kids wanted.
Meanwhile, the US black community itself was beginning to resent Whitney’s success and what they saw as her “betrayal”. Hence her humiliation at the 1989 Soul Train Music Awards, where she was called “Oreo” (an American biscuit which is black on the outside and white on the inside).
Perhaps it’s just a coincidence that she ended up marrying the very next act up – rapper Bobby Brown – who had a reception as rapturous as hers had been the rancorous. Bobby, known for his partying, seemed an unlikely match for Whitney. But perhaps that was the point. Rather than the nice girl seduced by the naughty Bobby from the Boston projects, maybe “soul aristocracy” Whitney saw Bobby as her ticket to “ghetto fabulousness”.
Whatever the truth of this, Whitney began to become known as a party girl and the successful 1998 comeback (sometimes almost singalong) album My Love is Your Love, with guest appearances by a new generation of R ‘n’ B stars – and a promo video which depicted a 1970s party in the streets of Harlem – succeeded in relaunching Whitney’s credibility. However, it seems that there has been a price to pay for Whitney’s new fashionability and “improved” blackness – but then, suffering is supposedly good for the soul, and, now it seems, sales.
Whether that price includes, as some maintain, that elemental voice, will become clear with her new album, Just Whitney, scheduled for release at the end of the year. If it turns out that she has finally squandered her talent, it will be sad of course but perhaps also understandable. Such a vast “gift” is undoubtedly also a curse. Squandering it might be the last act of will available to a very wilful lady called Whitney.
© Mark Simpson