Slow suicide is the term I've used for years to describe those individuals who are incredibly unhappy in their own lives, in their own skin, and do things to destroy that life, to destroy that skin. Whatever the race or culture of that person is immaterial; it doesn't matter if they are famous and wealthy, or unknown and poor. What matters is the source of their pain, and the ways they've chosen to deal with that pain. Or not.
I have often wondered if Whitney Houston was ever happy -- as a world-class singer, as a daughter, as a wife, as a mother. She is gone now, her death a sad and jolting concluding scene to a long-running drama that we witnessed -- at times, with tremendous pride and at times, with alarming discomfort -- because she was by far the most gifted and the most visible singer of her generation, of the past 25 years. And because she battled various forms of drug addiction on an Olympian stage, and was in a wild and notoriously dysfunctional and abusive marriage with R&B singer Bobby Brown for 15 years.
My heart aches for Whitney Houston, even if many of us, through the years, could see such a moment coming. There was too much photographic evidence of her fluctuating weight, of her caramel-brown face drenched in sweat when not performing. But when you die in a Beverly Hills hotel room, at age 48, alone, on the eve of the Grammy Awards, discovered by your bodyguard, after 170m records sold, too-many-to-count Grammy, Billboard, and Emmy awards, and the biggest US single of all time ("I Will Always Love You"), we have to wonder, if we are sincere with ourselves: did we collectively participate in the slow and catastrophic plunge of Whitney Houston?
For sure, the social media networks are abuzz with genuine tributes to her, from celebrities, from those who actually knew her, from profoundly heart-broken fans. But I also think about how Whitney Houston had declined from American musical royalty to the oft-ridiculed and washed-up singer and drug fiend. There were interventions by her mother, the gospel singer Cissy Houston, and others. But there were also shameful, high-voltage spotlights, like her awkward interview with Diane Sawyer where she declared, when asked about her alleged drug use, "crack is whack." We also cannot forget Bobby Brown's car crash of a TV show, Being Bobby Brown, which felt like we were watching a buffoonish caricature of love and marriage.
Yet, we absorbed these moments anyhow, because in this age of reality television, celebrity confessionals, YouTube and TMZ, the tribulations of mega-stars like Whitney Houston not only provide raw amusement for us, but allow us to mask in cowardly fashion our own sins and failings while mocking these clearly flawed human beings. That, indeed, is the great conundrum of the entertainment industry. On the one hand, it affords opportunities to be whatever we want to be, and more. On the flip side, the industry is a space where far too many individuals never fully grow up or evolve, never fully find out who they really are beneath the hype and hysteria.
For example, Houston was dogged for years by rumors of lesbianism because of her extremely close relationship with then-best friend Robyn Crawford (after Houston's marriage to Brown, Crawford mysteriously faded from view, and I do wonder what she has to say about Whitney's death), and even of an alleged affair with Tom Cruise's Top Gun co-star Kelly McGillis. Who knows what is legit and what is fairy tale, but what if part of Houston's drug dependency and acting out had to do with her living a make-believe existence crafted by others, simply to protect her image and superstardom? What if some of those nearest to her participated in a kind of collusion because they knew that homophobia in America would derail their breadwinner named Whitney Houston? Or because they were homophobic themselves?
And what if Houston was never the flawless pop princess we fancied her to be, that she really was just a girl from the tough streets of urban America with a big dream and a big voice? What if the post-Bodyguard Whitney was much closer to her real persona than the Whitney we came to adore in the 1980s and early 1990s?
In due time, I am sure the Whitney Houston storytellers will emerge. But, for now, I would much prefer to remember Whitney Houston for the angelic and genius singer she was. I will not lie and say I was a huge fan of Houston's when she burst on the scene in 1985, with her self-titled debut album. Yes, I knew she was the daughter of Cissy Houston, the cousin of Dionne Warwick and the goddaughter of Aretha Franklin. If there was ever a black soul lineage to hail from, this was it.
Legendary music mogul Clive Davis's very conscious decision to take this gospel-steeped black child of Newark and East Orange, New Jersey, and transform her into a top-40 diva may have made Houston an international star, but it left some African-Americans initially scratching our heads about her bubbly pop leanings. With hindsight, Davis did the right thing because he understood America, and the world, was ready to embrace a vocalist like Whitney Houston.
That is because Whitney Houston had it all. She was tall, lean, and so jaw-droppingly gorgeous that she had a modeling career before her vocation as a singer exploded (including as one of the first women of color ever on the cover of Seventeen). She possessed a grace and class on stage that belied the fact she was only 22 when her first album appeared. She had the extraordinary ability to bring folks from all walks of life together just by belting a song. (Think of her singing America's national anthem at the 1991 Super Bowl, days after the first Gulf war began.) And as others have remarked, she had the kind of voice for which one quickly runs out of superlatives, that comes along but a few times in every generation. Ask those she has influenced, like Grammy and Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson or multiple Grammy-winner Mariah Carey.
And you felt Whitney Houston's voice: esteemed by black church fans; connected with the traditions of a people who used music as an escape from their blues; in the mold of Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Chaka Khan, and, yes, Aretha Franklin; and boundless in the way life, all of our lives, should be boundless. Houston's interpretation of "The Greatest Love of All" (originally recorded by George Benson in the 1970s) on that first album caught my attention for these very reasons.
But it was when The Bodyguard (1992) became a monster film hit and the theme song "I Will Always Love You" was so ubiquitous, that I decided to see Houston perform in person. It was at Radio City Hall, New York, in 1992 or 1993. She had a band, and she had a stool. There were no dancers, no gimmicks, just that voice. When Houston hit the climax of "I Will Always Love You," there was not a dry eye in the building, mine included. I remember coming away from that concert thoroughly miffed that I had not been an avid supporter of hers until the point. But for the rest of her short career, I certainly was, following every song or CD release, every appearance and hiccup in the twisting pulp fiction that was her real life.
There has been much talk of parallels between the demise of Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston. I actually feel that Whitney Houston's spiritual twin is Judy Garland. Like Houston, Garland grew up in a musical family, and performed from her childhood on. Like Houston, there were bottomless expectations for Garland's career, stunning successes as both singer and actress, and a long bout with substance abuse. Like Houston, there were bad relationships, public humiliations, multiple comebacks, and a voice and body that, near the end, had been destroyed by years of neglect and decay. And like Houston, Judy Garland died in her late 40s, the promise of what could have been gone forever.
Like Marilyn Monroe. Like Dorothy Dandridge. Like Janis Joplin. Like Amy Winehouse. Alas, Whitney Houston is no more in flesh, but her voice, a beacon of what is possible and the best in us, will remain long after the final tears and eulogies are said, long after the final renderings of her life by media and those who knew her, or thought they did. May Whitney Houston rest in the peace she never could achieve in her lifetime. Finally.
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