For suffering pop diva Whitney Houston, a mismatched voice that gave no shelter to pain
All addiction is pretty much the same; a talent like Whitney Houston is utterly exceptional. It's hard to reconcile those two thoughts.
When news of Houston's death broke this weekend, it sent all self-respecting children of the '80s reeling. Houston wasn't the same kind of visionary as Michael Jackson, to whom she is frequently compared in terms of chart dominance and racial mainstreaming. If anything, Houston was a product of record executive Clive Davis's imagination, a gawky ingenue thrust into the marketplace with a master plan behind her. But she was no less definitive for that. Her voice was a magnificent instrument, soaring and punchy when she was still a child, with an intense, finely-wrought sameness that was nearly a character unto itself. It flattened songs, eschewing interpretation in favor of, well, hearing its own voice. That's not meant as an insult; Whitney's voice was an ideal, an embodiment of everything pop taught us about feelings good and pure and how they're meant to sound.
I spent Saturday watching Whitney Houston videos; that's what one does these days when musicians die—and at least one network had decided to save us the YouTube trouble. The video for 1985's "How Will I Know" is just totally weird. It's set in a paint-splattered, candy-colored hall of mirrors that could pass for a sanitized wing of Pee-Wee's Playhouse. Houston is swarmed by mutant dancers who, at their most extreme, confuse gender (a twirling bride/groom hybrid) and border on the grotesque (a human pyramid that has made the leap into blob-dom).
Then there's Whitney, with her oversized bow, perfectly framed face, and bouncy curls. She seems to have wandered into this world, a star being given that era's bewildering star treatment. (It's a theme Michael Jackson returned to increasingly over his career, but never more forcefully than with the equally grotesque/carnivalesque video for "Leave Me Alone.") Three years later, "I'm Your Baby Tonight" places her in a Blue Angel-inspired cabaret, complete with more sexually ambiguous flirtation, and a club that's part West Side Story, part Thelonious Monk at the Five Spot.
None of this sticks; Houston still comes off as a good-natured performer, game to be there if not capable of fully disappearing into the absurd set-pieces. It's the voice that jumps out, pushing the video, however bizarre or splashy, into the background where it belongs.
The sound of her voice was always the main attraction, and when she made the turn from pop princess to full-fledged diva, it was mostly only the tempo that changed. When she recorded with Bill Laswell's shambling avant-funk ensemble Material alongside hoary free jazz saxophonist Archie Shepp (nothing if not left-of-center), Houston was neither out of place nor in on the joke. She was just Whitney Houston, voice unstoppable.
If Michael Jackson brokered the total package, Houston was a throwback, a vocalist who knew how to project and draw in listeners with a single note, no matter what it was saying. The "I" that opens her rendition of "I Will Always Love You," is stunningly ego-less. It's that voice announcing its presence, not its vessel. Whatever you think of Houston's way with a lyric—in this case, she has a wrenching Dolly Parton performance to grapple with—it's virtually impossible to not feel that syllable in your bones. Houston was the sound of pure pop during those years, and she's unbreakably linked to the memories that go with it. Since she could have had the same same effect in a vacuum, it's safe to say that, even if Clive Davis made her, in the end what's lasted could only have come from Whitney.
Yet since the late '90s, at least, Houston had been embroiled in the worst kind of celebrity decay. Her problems with drugs and alcohol, and a marriage to Bobby Brown that was alternately comical and sinister, ravaged her. As Nitsuh Abebe notes, the perfect voice had given way to a raw, imperfect person. To take it even further, the voice and all it stood for took a backseat to a real, and really broken person. The disconnect was frightening.
Houston's music always had what one might politely call a "happy problem." It was always amiable, stopping just short of cloying. "Saving All My Love for You" is a classic cheating ballad, descended straight from "Mr. and Mrs. Untrue." For Houston, though, it was just another expression of exalted feeling. The video tries to wring some pathos out of it, but as always, the voice wins. "I'm Your Baby Tonight" could have been aggressive or slinky, but it's not.
It's hard to square that tone with the Whitney Houston we had become so familiar with over the past decade or so—emaciated, strung out, unreliable, and in many ways, unremarkable. Amy Winehouse wore her self-destruction on her sleeve, but ultimately, that means her music only illuminates a particularly nasty universal. Winehouse's addiction in itself made her more ordinary; it was her ability to express addiction, like other singers do love, that mattered. It's a given that drugs don't make the music. What they do, though, is give some artists another banality to mine and transform.
Houston's music and her voice weren't built for that task. Or, rather, that voice was so regal, so full of grace, that it was hard to imagine it troubled by any kind of grimy, worldly constraint. Maybe this is Whitney's gospel pedigree shining through. She had plenty of demons, like all of us. Church was meant to dispel them, to look beyond the everyday struggle. That may sound corny, but it's the formulation that has kept faith going for who knows how long.
Whitney Houston's voice was that spark dropped into pop. Her music isn't in denial, her voice isn't set off from who she really is. If anything, it was a constant reminder that maybe, she could be better.