Monday, February 13, 2012

Mourning Whitney: The Melancholic Diva

Whitney Houston's ignominious end on Saturday afternoon was a tragic but somehow fitting end to a life touched with talent and so much pain. Discovered in a bathtub at the famous Beverly Hilton, Houston's submerged body was lifeless and at 48, her end came in the most melodramatic way possible, just a day before the music industry's biggest night, the Grammys. At the annual awards, artists poured on the praise and artists Adele and J Hudson seemed to be crowned Whitney's successors, with the former winning six prizes (including all three top categories) and the latter performing a rousing rendition of Whitney's signature song, "I Will Always Love You."

The articles that have appeared have told the now familiar tale of Whitney's rise to stardom from a family of music insiders, mother Cissy Houston, the famed gospel singer; cousin Dionne Warwick, the muse of Burt Bachrach; and godmother Aretha Franklin, the so-called Queen of Soul. When discovered by Clive Davis of Arista Records, Whitney became a superstar virtually overnight with rousing ballads and dance anthems, attaining seven straight number one hits, a feat unmatched by any artist since Whitney. She maneuvered herself easily from kiss-kiss songs to kiss-off songs of heartbreak.  She achieved her greatest success with the soundtrack to her Hollywood melodrama, "The Bodyguard" (1993). With her slick version of Dolly Parton's original, "I Will Always Love You," Houston proved that her unique mezzo voice could belt out a song with emotion and power.

 Many commentators have stated that we should eschew a sensationalist rattling of Whitney's addictions and public disgraces, but with a diva of Whitney's stature, her public success is deeply intertwined with her private defeats, the two are inextricably linked. And in many ways, this is the pattern for many of the past century's greatest female talents. From Maria Callas and Judy Garland, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, to Amy Winehouse, Mariah Carey and now Whitney, these women have lived within the realm of feminine excess, pushing the boundaries for acceptable female behavior. The strong voices they create in their films and music seep into their quotidian lives, usually ending in erratic behavior, addictions and careers littered with innumerable peaks and valleys. Every hit has a concomitant flop, and every time that they have faded from the limelight, there is the possibility of a comeback.

This cycle of success, failure and comeback becomes the narrative of redemption that so many hunger for. Mariah Carey proved that even a woman who crashed and burned very publicly was welcomed back with a new album. In fact, Mariah's 2005 album, "The Emancipation of Mimi," contained the biggest hit of her entire career, "We Belong Together." She won her first Grammy since she was crowned Best New Artist in 1990. Mariah trudged through the valley of the shadow of death and emerged unscathed on the other side, more popular than ever. Unfortunately, these type of stories are few and far between, and Whitney was not able to repeat it.

Whitney attempted the comebacks. She succeeded in 1998 with her album, "My Love is Your Love," which featured two top-ten hits: "It's Not Right, But It's Okay" and "Heartbreak Hotel." The album had a more urban sound than her earlier work, utilizing new producers and having guest spots from Enrique Inglesias, Deborah Cox, and Kelly Price. In the early 90's, Houston had been criticized for songs such as "Didn't We Almost Have it All?" for sounding too "white." At one NAACP Image awards of this time, her nomination for best female r&b singer was actually booed. In many ways, her marriage to Bobby Brown was a calculated move to win back some of this audience and gain some credibility with the audience that she felt she should have on her side. This album allowed a smooth return to the R&B urban charts  "It's Not Right" became her biggest hit in years and won her the last Grammy of her life. It became a dance-floor anthem for people dumped and one of the finest kiss-off songs of the decade.

But after that, the drug use increased. At a 2001 Michael Jackson concert, she appeared so thin--anorexic, even--that her bone-thin arms were actually digitally thickened. Her 2002 interview with Diane Sawyer became an ominous warning to celebrities of the pitfalls of fame. She spoke of herself in the third person dropping such witty bon mots, as "Whitney Houston makes too much money to do crack;" "Crack is whack;" or my personal favorite, "Show me the receipts, Diane Sawyer." The problems with her hubby became the fodder for comedians with the antics of her ridiculous reality show, "Being Bobby Brown." Houston was reduced to a supporting character, often appearing bemused and befuddled, shouting, "Bobbbby!" at the top of her lungs, the only use of her famed vocal pipes on the entire show. Arrests of Bobby for beating ensued, and the marriage finally ended in 2007.

Unfortunately, the break with Bobby did not broker a new, reinvented Whitney. The attempts at sobriety failed. The last album in 2009, "I Look to You," showed how the years of drug abuse, smoking, boozing and carousing had ravaged her voice. Even the best song of the album, "Million Dollar Bill" (penned by admirer, Alicia Keys) did not display the range that "I wanna Dance with Somebody" had exposed in the early days of her career. The R. Kelly song, "I Look to You," which was supposed to be her next ballad, showed a voice that did not have the strength it had only a decade before. The succeeding tour was a disaster. At a London show, a critic wrote that at "one point, Ms Houston said her soprano friend did not show up tonight. Her mezzo or contralto friends failed to show up either."

She was supposed to be recording a new album and star in a remake of the 1976 film musical, "Sparkle." But the true tragedy of Saturday's news was that few people were truly shocked. Just like Amy Winehouse, this past summer, it seemed these women were doomed to an early death. The roller coasters of their lives seemed inevitably leading to disaster. Whitney's attempts to curry favor with those surrounding her only led to her self-destruction to be carried to its logical conclusion. At least, we still have the music from those early days. We will continue to dance and sing along to those ballads and disco tracks. Whitney would be happy about that.

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