Whitney Houston: When fame and fortune claimed another victim
February 18, 2012 00:00 By Pornpimol Kanchanalak
"Crack is whack," she said, looking into the eyes of Dianne Sawyer, during the 2002 Primetime Special interview.
“I make too much money to ever smoke crack.” The interview was the highest rated television interview in history.
One could sense the contempt in her voice, that “defensive hauteur” that the New York Times used to described her acting. She did not deny using drugs, but “whack” crack – the term coined by the late American artist Keith Haring when he painted the two-sided mural in Harlem River Park in 1986 – was not her drug of choice.
At the time of that interview, the girl with the golden voice from New Jersey had gone through life’s peaks and valleys so many times that something inside her might have broken permanently. In her interview with Oprah Winfrey in 2009, which again became “the most anticipated music interview of the decade”, Houston admitted to doing “laced marijuana with rock cocaine”. She admitted that doing drugs became her everyday habit. “I wasn’t happy by that point in time. I was losing myself,” she said.
And the self that she lost was the shy religious girl with a sweet temperament, angelic face and doe eyes, and a God-given gift that would later be commonly referred to as “The Voice”.
“I would close my eyes … and I’d sing. I was so afraid when I’d sing. Then when I would open my eyes, the people would be what we call Holy Ghost fired out. They would be in such a spirit of praise. I think I knew then that it was an infectious thing that God had given me.
“I’ve been through a world, a lifetime of stuff. I love to sing, but it’s just not fun anymore,” she said. “It was not about music anymore, it was all about money.”
Maybe that is the reason many talented artists such as Tracy Chapman chose to stay away from the mainstream commercial music industry after having gotten a taste of it. Maybe that is the reason Cesaria Evora of Cape Verde chose to sing without shoes throughout her life, so she would not lose her sense of reality.
Whitney Houston started to sing as a soloist at the age of 11 in the junior gospel choir at the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, New Jersey, where her private funeral will be held today. She continued to sing even when she began her fashion modelling career and became the first black woman ever to grace the cover of Seventeen magazine, and later featured in many more. She rose to international prominence when she was just 22 years old, with her first album, “Whitney Houston”.
In 1991, when the United States got entangled in the Persian Gulf War during the George H.W. Bush administration, she was chosen to sing the national anthem, “The Star Strangled Banner”, at the Super Bowl in Florida. People may cynically say that too much hype was given to that performance by calling it the unifying patriotic factor at a time of war, but for those who watched it, they knew it was as spiritual as it could be. Houston, in white sweat pants, simple white headband over unkempt curly hair, with little or no make up, sweat running down her face as she sang with her eyes closed, never once missed a note, a beat, or a word. The anthem is known as a notoriously difficult song due to its wide octave range – over one and a half. The term fit for that performance would be “ethereal and glorious”. It became the benchmark for singers to be judged by until today.
Then there were movies, the first of which, “The Bodyguard”, in 1992, became a smash hit at box offices around the world. The movie made US$410 million worldwide, making it one of the top 100 grossing films in movie history at the time of its release. It also earned Houston the Razzie Award for Worst Actress.
There would be more movies, more albums and more concerts as her behaviour became more erratic. Her marriage to the R&B singer Bobby Brown in 1992 was what she would later called the “Svengali relationship”. They admitted to doing drugs together; each was the enabler. It was a destructive period in her life. The perfect, good-girl image of Whitney Houston in the 1980s and mid 1990s was replaced by that of a big mess. Yet, she remained defiant.
She would say later on that her business during those years was “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll”, saying she never had time to grow up, no time to play, and no time to date, so she reverted back. She said she partied to ease the pressure, to get out of the mould she could not break. She wanted to have a life, to be ”free”.
In the last six years after divorcing her husband, Whitney Houston attempted to make a comeback, and returned to her root – music. Her performances and her voice were met with negative reviews and reactions. Her first world tours in over ten years were marked with frequent cancellations and performed in an unsteady and uneven voice. Despite it all, her songs “Million Dollar Bill” and “I Look To You” climbed the charts, the latter of which went gold in the UK.
During the 2002 interview, Diane Sawyer asked Houston to give a description of a perfect life ten years from then.
“Retiring. Sitting, looking at my daughter grow up, become a great woman of God … grandchildren,” was her answer. It was exactly ten years since that fateful interview that she passed away.
Foo Fighters, the American alternative rock band, said of their album that just won five Grammy Awards this week, out of the six nominations, that it was produced in a garage. They said music did not have to be perfect. But with Whitney Houston’s voice, before life took a big toll on her, it was pretty darn close.