When she burst onto the world stage in the 1980s, no-one
could have predicted how she would depart it in the 21st century. But Whitney
Houston’s career truly was meteoric: she blazed to fame, burned her way across
the sky, and vanished into darkness in all too brief a space of time.
It was four years ago this month that she was discovered
dead in her hotel room in Beverley Hills, California. She had drowned in the
bath, weakened by heart disease and general ill-health. It was an old person’s
death, but Whitney was only 48 and should have enjoyed decades more at the top
of the entertainment business.
The explanation for her premature death is simple: she had
become addicted to drugs, and cocaine in particular. That would have seemed
almost impossible at the beginning of her career, when she was remarkable for
her radiant beauty and good behaviour. And for her remarkable voice, of course:
it was powerful but effortless, passionate but melodic. She could have sung the
telephone directory and made it sound good.
She chose much better material than that: she had an
excellent ear for songs, helped by both her ancestry and her upbringing. She
had been preparing for a musical career almost since her birth to a
middle-class black couple in Newark, New Jersey, in 1963. Her mother Emily was
a gospel singer and her father John worked in the entertainment business. Two
big music stars were close to the Houston family: Dionne Warwick was a cousin
and Aretha Franklin was a good friend.
Warwick and Franklin had both enjoyed long careers, and
Whitney seemed ready to follow their example. She sang in a gospel choir at a
Baptist Church in Newark, then joined her mother on stage as a back-up singer
during her teens. She also worked as a model, gracing the pages of teen and
fashion magazines. It seemed perfect preparation for an attempt at stardom: she
was used to public appearances and had carefully honed her musical craft,
familiarizing herself with several genres and carefully observing her mother
and other female performers.
Her hard work paid off. After signing with the record
company Arista, she rose to international stardom after the release of her
self-titled debut album in 1985. Today that album alone is estimated to have
sold 25 million copies around the world. Comparisons with the similarly
mega-selling Michael Jackson are inevitable. Like Whitney, Jackson enjoyed huge
success at an early age and seems to have been doomed by it. Once they became
stars, neither of them could ever lead an ordinary life again. Both were drawn
into drug abuse, both slowly lost their good looks, both became increasingly
And both died because of it, Jackson in 2009 and Whitney in
2012. Jackson seems never to have recovered from the traumas of his childhood,
when his father ruthlessly drilled him and his brothers for performance.
Whitney didn’t have an unhappy childhood like that, but her once shiny image
became tarnished after she married a singer called Bobby Brown in 1992. She was
no longer the consummate professional or the radiant beauty: she was late for
performances and interviews and began to lose weight. Rumours circulated that
she and Brown were taking drugs together.
Unfortunately, the rumours were true. However, the couple
divorced in 2006 and Whitney’s career began to recover. She had another number
one US album with I Look to You in 2009, but she was dogged by negative
reviews of her live performances and it was clear that the effortless grace of
her heyday in the 1980s and early ’90s was gone for good. She was still a
superstar, but her past looked bigger than her future.
Then came the news, in February 2012, that her future was
over: she had passed away in the saddest of circumstances. The meteor that had
once blazed across the sky had been extinguished. But nothing will ever dim the
memory of her early years at the top and her music will continue to attract new
fans, retain old ones, and inspire and influence other performers.
Like Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston was a star whose like
will never be seen again: the entertainment business has become too diverse,
has splintered into too many niches and specialist interests. No-one can
dominate the scene as those two once did and no-one will challenge their place
at the very top of the musical tree. It’s a small consolation for a massive