Since they reported the salient details of Whitney Houston's autopsy report, the media grasp for gossip, be it reporting on daughter Bobbi Krisina's affair with a man who her mother informally adopted or ex-husband Bobby Brown's recent relapse and rehabilitation attempt. Neither father nor daughter would warrant much attention today without Houston's shadow drawing attention to their current exploits. Houston's ghost (or at least her memory) continues to possess pop and tabloid culture, even prompting and promoting a reality show from beyond the grave.
With all the assorted marketing strategies designed to address the public fixation on Houston, the releases of her final film, Sparkle, and its gospel standard, "His Eye Is on the Sparrow," allow Houston's memory to be shrouded in a poignant dignity, even if the consequences of the last 15 years cast that dignity in pain and tragedy.
Some reviewers are justifiably praising Houston's performance on the gospel standard, "His Eye Is on the Sparrow." The emotion is shattering. A few claim, however, she had regained not only her gumption, but also approached her former glory with that performance. Not even close. No doubt, it is a beautifully (if rugged and stark) emotive voice, but the acrobatic instrument of the past is not present. There's a poignancy in her delivery. Her voice is a ragged, tired remnant of the gorgeous ingénue who unseated Madonna from her pop perch in 1986. If you listen to Mahalia Jackson or the young Jennifer Holliday sing the song, you realize how strained and, at least on the Richter scale, sub-par Houston's performance turned out. (Gospel singer Marion Williams sang a few verses of the standard for me in 1993, when she was 66 and ill, but she made the song seem effortless.) Since Houston did not have to prove anything -- the vocal brilliance of her salad days granted her artistic immortality and a staunch following -- the performance is most interesting for the attempt, the strain, the pain and a sense of almost tattered torture.
It reminds of Billie Holiday's Lady in Satin, made when that artist was approaching death's door; smothered in the depths of addiction. One reviewer wrote that Holiday's voice was not much more than a croak. I don't recall the exact words the reviewer used to describe the dark brilliance of that album, but I got the lasting impression it was the husky pathos of her ravaged voice that shellshocked the listener with pain, regret and frustration. Houston's swan song, I suspect, will engender comparable resonance due to her former glory coupled with latter-day struggles. Then there is the hindsight romanticism of impending doom that might position Houston in the tragedienne pantheon, sharing a pedestal beside Holiday as a cult heroine. (After all, their respective reality shows surpassed most tragedies performed on stage by even the greatest tragediennes.)
Actually, "Celebrate," the other Houston effort on the Sparkle soundtrack might technically qualify as her swan song. The cut is a lightweight song and not the best to example Houston's artistry -- let alone her voice. The primary attribute that "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" boasts, other than the display of stark emotion, is that it serves as an allegory of the destination point, the final stop, of Houston's personal and professional progression -- from the tired and struggling vocals to the stubborn pursuit of redemption. Despite her downfall, Houston persisted in attempting a comeback.
I also think she never abandoned her attempts to come clean, shake her demons and embrace the innocent spirituality of her childhood church (even if most churches are not completely innocent, the symbolism and nostalgia in the face of such latter-day waste and despair must have been a psychological oasis). "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" is a classic gospel embrace of hope and triumph in the face of despair. Houston's version is not memorable for the vocal acuity, but for the clouded emotions. It's almost a painful experience. I feel the effort and frustration as Houston limps the last mile. Rather than climax, the song collapses. In other aforementioned incarnations of the song, the curtain drops to the sounds of soaring -- make that shattering -- salvation. With Houston's attempt, I feel exhausted more than ecstatic when it ends.
There is a moment when the choir appears and attempts to unleash the past and push Houston over, just as three years ago Clive Davis and her faithful fans attempted (and appeared at the time) to edge her over the hump. At the song's climax, with the choir's exuberant support, I almost expect her to overcome the self-inflicted insults to her instrument and reputation; and blast into a past when she starred opposite Kevin Costner as the powerhouse siren. My expectations recall the expectations of those who had expected Houston to overcome her personal demons in the post-Bobby Brown episodes of her real-life reality show. As we know, that didn't happen in real life; it doesn't happen on this recording.
No matter. Houston's swan song, both on record and onscreen, allowed her finale to close with dignity and class. It's a far more honorable bow than had her swan song been the "Being Bobby Brown" reality show. Actually, had that been the case, the term "swan song" would've been a misnomer. Far from being the ugly duckling transformed into a beautiful swan, Houston would have started out the beautiful swan who had evolved into the coarse shrew. With Sparkle and "His Eye Is on the Sparrow," Houston may not have regained her voice, but she reclaimed her gospel youth, her class and an appearance of pained but persistent dignity.