IN MEMORIAM: Whitney Houston
by Marcus K. Dowling
Whitney Houston, arguably the most public of tragic tales at the mainstream height of the classic record industry model, is dead. Believed to have drowned herself in a bathtub a night prior to the 54th Annual Grammy Awards, she doesn’t just leave her family as her survivors, she leaves the world in shock and awe. Houston’s a rare case in music. Someone whose indescribable talent became a precious human commodity, her songbird joy became the world’s happiness. In registering and mourning her demise, the world will always genuflect for a bittersweet moment in her memory.
Every twenty years, the music industry finds a soulful anointed child. The concept started, as all great pop soul stories should, with Motown’s Berry Gordy. He nurtured Diana Ross from a shy Detroit teen into a Supreme icon and then the diva who sang the blues and so much more. The next important man in this industry paradigm is Sony Records chief Clive Davis. From CBS to Arista to Sony, he’s been one of progressive soul’s most noted proponents, and in two specific cases, found the next great voices along this most amazing lineage. Beyonce, the most recent diva for all times is currently in the limelight of her era, but Blue Ivy’s mother could never exist without Whitney Houston.
She was already musical royalty. Mama Cissy, Auntie Dionne and Godmother Aretha were Cissy Houston, Dionne Warwick and Aretha Franklin, who, in both gospel and rhythm and blues were blessed with the iconic ability to breathe life into words, creating indelible and affecting imagery. By the time she was discovered in a New York City nightclub in 1983, she was already groomed to ascend to the throne as the most important woman in popular music. Between time spent as a jet-setting model and years spent as a studio background vocalist, it was never if, but when and just how much would be made regarding Houston’s stardom.
The key to the special children of popular music is that they only have to sing. All other stresses and worries of less blessed vocalists are of no concern. Songwriting, finding the right producers, locating studio time while struggling to get by are all secondary to the voice. Given the moment and necessity, it’s razor thin, fantastically voluminous or somewhere in-between. They nail the song EVERY time, because that’s the expectation. It’s stressful, but they’re engineered for it. Wonder women wielding vocal registers like swords – slicing our souls, opening our wallets and becoming exalted divas for eternity.
The only issue regarding this is when the stress becomes too much. Your talent on lease from god become talent owned and sold by an industry and ultimately a universe. You’re not just singing for yourself. Your success doesn’t just buy your mother a new house, it buys new houses for your manager, your A & R rep, and all of the label’s executives. As your stardom rises, your every move becomes the hopes and dreams of young girls who, one day, will want to be you, but bigger, better and richer. Between recording music, performing music and guiding the next generation, developing a chemical dependency not only makes sense, but it feels right. It’s hard work being perfect, especially when your level of stress and demands on your talent tell you otherwise.
It isn’t Bobby Brown’s fault either. He was there merely to help Whitney bear the incredible weight of being Whitney. A fast-living, good-looking respite from the fray. His development and sharing of addictions with his then wife was unfortunate, but when life moves fast and decisions must move faster, perfection in a continuous series of harried instants can’t be expected.
At life’s end, Whitney Houston received an estimated 415 awards. Whitney, her debut album went 13x platinum. She also had 11 Billboard number one pop singles. 1992’s soundtrack to film The Bodyguard was ubiquitous. Houston’s cover of “I Will Always Love You” is statistically the most beloved single in modern musical history. Her videos for “How Will I Know”and “Greatest Love of All” are two of the great marriages of music and television, and it’s a standard that will never be met, matched or approached. A new musical history dawned from Houston. From her style and creative legacy evolved our present and future.
Time and chance create the fickle nature of fate. When times of weakness create chances for unfortunate decisions, fate intervenes, causing a swift and cruel downward spiral. Emerging does occur, but to do so unscathed is impossible. Whitney Houston was great. The universe made her perfect. Life lived too fast in that most exalted of spaces created destructive imperfections. Fighting those demons and attempting to meet perfection yet again? Sadly too much to bear.