Demise of power ballad diva a reminder of the dark side of showbusiness

Mon, Feb 13, 2012, 00:00

FROM BILLIE Holiday through to Judy Garland and up to Amy Winehouse, it can seem like there is a macabre life script available to female entertainment greats.

You begin with a colossal talent, achieve fame, fortune and then enter into steady, self- inflicted decline with drink/drugs and personal turmoil playing their unedifying part.

Whitney Houston’s death last Saturday fits depressingly well into the template already established. By her own admission she had everything, “but threw it all away”. With continual references to “the devil inside of me”, she never actually detailed her descent into drug addiction but the evidence was there to see on the ravaged face of a once stunning looking woman.

You could hear the damage wreaked on her previously pristine vocals – on recent tours she was unable to reach the high notes and at times appeared disorientated, merely fulfilling contractual obligations.

There seems little doubt that her lifestyle contributed to her early demise. As the American music industry gathered for the annual Grammy award ceremony last night, her death will be a reminder of the entertainment business’s dark side – a place where you can have it all but end up more consumed by the need to score a drug hit as opposed to a chart one.

While the industry does not exactly facilitate drink/drug addiction, it remains the best profession for those so inclined. There is a tolerance that simply would not be countenanced elsewhere. The fame and fortune experienced by artists such as Houston can, as in Michael Jackson’s case, make you an “untouchable”.

When you make millions for your employer, little attention is paid to your health and wellbeing. The damaging myth of the music world that substance abuse is “part of the territory” often means that when people wake up to a star’s drug dependency, it is too late.

People knew with whom Michael Jackson was sharing his bed and what drugs he was using. People also knew what Houston was putting into her body, but when the star is that big (and those closest to them are most likely on the payroll), these behaviours are allowed to continue and are recklessly condoned.

The industry is notoriously short-sighted – popular music was seen, in the early days, as an ephemeral phenomenon. You got in, made your money and got out before another gimmick came along. As we have seen with so many ageing (and age is very relative term in the music industry) stars encountering personal problems once the limelight dims, no structure is in place to deal with the fallout.

The main problem is that the industry lives on continual renewal.

Houston had become a busted flush. There were some desperate attempts to resuscitate her once glittering career but with fresher faces such as Beyoncé and Rihanna on the block, no one was really paying attention. Stars wind up washed-up and discarded – no one wants a Norma Desmond on their books.

For all the luvvy air-kissing and constant messages of “love and support”, the industry is ruthless. Unless you’re a “happening” artist, you simply don’t figure. The money has been made and your wilderness years await. No one is going to invest time and money salvaging the career of a late 40s female singer carrying pharmaceutical baggage.

The fanatical public acclaim is so difficult to relinquish for a star such as Houston that even (again, as in Michael Jackson’s case), when body and mind are not in a fit state to record or perform, they still throw themselves out there. It is a form of celebrity delusion – which also accounts for how they blithely refer to their drugs as “medicine”.

The biggest names in the music firmament will shed their tears and warble tributes to Houston at the Grammys. It’s a showbiz ritual – the industry that made her, broke her.

And they owe Houston. It is not an exaggeration of the fact to say that she single-handedly set the vocal template for how stars now sing. From Mariah Carey through to Beyoncé through to most of the reality TV singing stars, Houston’s phrasing and delivery have been hugely influential.

She was born into singing royalty – the daughter of noted gospel singer Cissy Houston, the cousin of Dionne Warwick and the goddaughter of Aretha Franklin.

Houston used her gospel vocal style and gave it a remarkable pop sheen. She could move up and down scales, dramatically increase volume and sustain a level of singing intensity which was remarkable. Even if her material was too saccharin for many tastes, the vocal delivery could stop you in your tracks.

The irony is that because of her church background and great beauty, she was considered early on as “clean living” and an ideal role model for the emerging black middle class. Unlike today’s big female singing stars, who behave on stage and in their videos as if they’re auditioning for a soft porn movie, Houston used her voice – not her cleavage and pelvic flicks – to make an impression.

She parlayed her talent into a successful acting career and became one of the most successful solo entertainers of all time.

But while the likes of Beyoncé and Rihanna (for all their on-stage antics) behave like chief executives off stage, Houston, with her proverbial “rocky marriage” and frequent trips to rehab, was a mess.

“I was losing myself and doing drugs every day,” she confessed in a 2010 interview. Sadly, she found out too late that the drugs don’t work. Never did and never will.