Whitney Houston, once described as America's first black sweetheart, was moulded and used by the music industry, writes ANN MARIE HOURIHANE
TONY BENNETT very upset and reaching for the superlatives. The drugs. A marriage which the press can only describe as "tempestuous" – now there's an adjective to chill the heart. Here we have all the regular ingredients of a female pop star's death, including the announcement from Perez Hilton's website "Whitney Houston Dead!!! So Sad!!!" The same site slipped a little in captioning the most recent photo of Whitney, at a Gospel ceremony on Friday night, singing a song the Perez Hilton people identified as Jesus Loved Me. The past tense was so sad. It was corrected in the ensuing piece, and there isn't a journalist writing an article about a recently and unexpectedly deceased celebrity who can cast the first stone. The thing is that it looks like Jesus did once love Whitney, and then He moved out of town. The key part in the deaths of these beautiful female singers is the descent. As in "She had everything", "She squandered her talent" and so on.
Poor Whitney, once described as America's first black sweetheart – she sang The Star Spangled Bannerat the 1991 Superbowl, and later released it as a single – is dead at 48. And even though her years placed her firmly in middle age, her death has more in common with that of Amy Winehouse (27, July 2011) than it does with that of the rather tumultuous Etta James (73, last month). Etta had a terrible childhood and then a heroin habit, but she managed to survive, and to reach an age no one could have predicted for her. Whitney Houston's godmother, Aretha Franklin, who is troubled herself, is still alive. Whitney's mother, Cissy Houston, is still alive, the poor woman.
But Whitney, despite the headbands and the pastel eyeshadow that were designed to endear her to Middle America, and made her what used to be known as a cross-over artist, died a rock’n’roll death. Found dead. Perez Hilton is right – so sad.
Here was success writ very large indeed. Her voice launched a million wedding days, thousands of karaoke sessions and just about half of the X Factorauditions. She sold 170 million records across the world. She had 11 US number ones and won six Grammys. She became so rich that affording cocaine, she said, was not a problem for her. And the Guardian'sobituary quotes her as saying she and her husband, Bobby Brown, were too rich to take crack cocaine, which was too cheap for the likes of them.
The lovely Bobby was playing Southaven, Missouri, when his ex-wife died. He went on stage.
The other man in her life, Clive Davis, the record company executive who was Whitney’s mentor, also continued with his schedule immediately after her death, hosting his pre-Grammys party. It was what Whitney would have wanted, he said.
The tributes that have been made to Whitney Houston since her death come from the aristocracy of the music business: “I’ve known Whitney since she was a little girl,” said Smokey Robinson. “It’s a tragedy. Whitney Houston was the greatest singer I’ve ever heard,” said Tony Bennett, who said something very similar about Amy Winehouse.
But Lionel Ritchie said: “She was just so innocent in this business.” Much more than Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston was moulded by the music business. Her transformation did not come from her, as Winehouse’s did. And although she came from a musical matriarchy of the highest quality – Cissy Houston is a famous Gospel singer and Dionne Warwick is a cousin – she emerged into what used to be called the record industry entirely undefended.
As a teenager she was singing backing vocals, with her mother, on Chaka Khan's I'm Every Woman. People were stunned by her confidence and her musical poise.
That's when the stylists ran in with the leg warmers and the hair straighteners. Part of this was racial: when she appeared on the cover of Seventeenmagazine in 1981 she was only the second black model to do so. But all of it was marketing.
The plan went remarkably well. It is true that in 1992 she was awarded a Razzle Award for Worst Actress for her performance in The Bodyguardwith Kevin Costner. It was a terrible film, but then Whitney had the last laugh because her album of the soundtrack and of her most famous anthem, I Will Always Love You, sold 40 million copies.
When she married Bobby Brown it was billed as the marriage of the princess and the bad boy, aka The Princess and The Frog. Bobby found this difficult – it was, as a very good single of his once had it, his Prerogative.
There was violence. They had a daughter – Bobbi Kristina. Whitney spent a good part of her time on drugs, both with and without her husband. There was a reality television show called, interestingly, Being Bobby Brown, which was not a good idea. Whitney blamed herself for her drug taking and the shambles it caused, saying that she was the devil in the case. But who knows how much of this was parroted rehab-speak. It must be difficult to be low-key when you're being interviewed by Diane Sawyer. Or Oprah. Her gigs were now posted on the internet because they were so risible. Poor Whitney. The descent is over for another talented female singer. So sad indeed.