Next year will mark a full decade since Whitney Houston drowned in the bathtub of her room at the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills. Three days after her death on February 11, 2011, I wrote the following tribute for Creative Loafing Charlotte. Whitney and I had little in common, but I felt a strong bond with her nonetheless. Her rise and fall in the music industry mirrored my own (although on much different levels), and her death shook me, as I know that I easily could have died in a similar manner. In the years since, I’ve come to appreciate and even like Whitney’s music much more than I ever did when she was alive. It speaks to me in ways that it didn’t when I was a music critic. And she speaks to me still.
Whitney Houston: A (very) personal tribute
By Mark Kemp, Creative Loafing, February 14, 2012
I was never a big fan of Whitney Houston’s music, although I respected and admired that hurricane of a voice. Still, her death Saturday at the way-too-young age of 48 affected me more profoundly than I ever would have imagined, as it did her millions of fans. I didn’t know what I was going to write about her, but I knew I needed to write something. I’ve been a music journalist for nearly three decades, and yet my reasons for mourning Whitney Houston are much more personal than pop-cultural.
You see, Whitney’s life and career have overlapped with mine many times and on multiple levels in the past 28 years. I began as a newspaper reporter in the early ’80s but was writing almost exclusively about music by 1985, the year Whitney’s first album arrived. She was pop-R&B; I wrote mostly about emerging post-punk, indie-rock and hip-hop. To my ears, Whitney Houston represented everything that was wrong about ’80s music. As big as her voice was, it got sapped of its soul by sterile production techniques that were so common in ’80s pop.
R&B had come a long way since the organic southern soul and funk of early-’70s Aretha Franklin records, or even the pristine pop of Motown. Prince and Michael Jackson were doing creative things with ’80s production, but the cheesy synthesizers and other ham-fisted sonic tricks were suffocating the voices of most mainstream pop and R&B stars, Whitney included. The 21-year-old daughter of gospel-soul singer Cissy Houston certainly cut a powerful, statuesque figure — all big puffy hair and hoop earrings, huge, gorgeous smile and sleek leather jacket — when she appeared in an early MTV video belting out “they can’t take away my dignity” in her first blockbuster ballad, “The Greatest Love of All.” It was a little schlocky, but you couldn’t deny that voice.
Fast-forward 15 years: Whitney Houston had been at the top of her game for an entire generation and was by then already a legend, her vocal gymnastics having influenced a cattle call of younger singers, from Mariah Carey to Christina Aguilera to Beyoncé’s early group Destiny’s Child. It was a style that Time magazine, writing about Carey, once described as “Nutrasweet soul.” But Whitney — with Arista Records executive Clive Davis by her side, helping to sculpt that sound and image — was the godmother of this new breed of divas.
By the late ’90s and early 2000s, Whitney’s “children” regularly passed through the green room at MTV, where I was then working as vice president of music editorial on the daily show TRL. Like Whitney, I was at the top of my game, too, having risen from a freelance writer covering alternative rock and hip-hop to editing the music pages of Rolling Stone. I’d sat in on recording sessions of classic albums by Public Enemy and Stetsasonic, and written cover stories on artists ranging from Lou Reed and Yoko Ono to Morrissey, Michael Stipe and Beck. Whitney and I were doing well. Or, so it seemed.
It didn’t start out that way. Whitney’s first solo gig was far from the powerhouse pop she became famous for. It was a song called “Memories,” which the 19-year-old singer performed on a 1982 album by the downtown New York experimental funk-rock collective Material. Behind her soulful voice was a sweet, smoky tenor saxophone solo by the legendary jazz man Archie Shepp. That song remains, for me at least, the only recording that truly shows the nuances of Whitney Houston’s talent.
Soon after, Davis scooped Whitney up and turned her into a pop princess that even she didn’t recognize. Whitney became America’s sweetheart, hopping about video shoots in big hair, wearing tops with shoulder pads amid sets splattered with new wave art, singing “How Do I Know” and “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.” What Davis had was a new Donna Summer-like disco queen for Madonna fans. What Whitney had was stardom.
Whitney was the biggest pop-R&B diva in the world throughout the ’90s, scoring hit after hit and singing a stirring version of “The Star Spangled Banner” at the 1991 Super Bowl. She landed a spot in the Kevin Costner movie The Bodyguard and turned Dolly Parton’s modest ballad “I Will Always Love You” into a multi-platinum showcase of vocal dexterity that had young wannabe pop singers from Charlotte to Seattle grasping hairbrushes in their suburban bathrooms, lip-synching the words and dreaming of the glamorous life that Whitney surely lived.
It was around that time that she married fellow pop star Bobby Brown, and the couple, like their counterparts in rock, Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love, became the gossip of the music world. The most common question was: How could America’s R&B-pop sweetheart marry a bad-boy R&B rapper? Whitney countered, saying that no one really knew who she was. She continued gaining accolades, landing movie roles and looking regal next to her bad-boy husband. And the gossip columnists continued chattering about this unlikely musical power couple that seemed to be living the glamorous life. Cracks began to appear in the façade, though, and by 2000 it was abundantly clear that Whitney Houston’s life was anything but glamorous.
That year, news broke that Whitney and Bobby were using drugs and things were looking dire. She began acting strangely during interviews and missing important appearances. She was no longer the bright-eyed singer — the good girl, America’s sweetheart — that she’d projected only a few years earlier. Her Colgate smile was now an icy glare. She looked hard, disheveled, unhealthy, defiantly anti-glamorous. The statuesque beauty with that hurricane of a voice was deteriorating right before our eyes into a common, everyday drug addict.
I was on a similar path. The MTV Networks executive who had everything he’d ever dreamed of had taken a detour and was on a crash course and about to collide head-on into one Whitney Houston. (No, not literally, but the impact was just as real.) I walked into work one day, unhealthy, unhappy, unfulfilled. My writing staff at VH1 was waiting in a conference room, as they always did, to brief me on the top music stories of the day. On this day, they were huddled around an image of Whitney Houston and cracking jokes about her appearance. Enraged, I launched into a diatribe: Those images, I told them, weren’t funny. They were images of sickness, sadness, disease. I was being defensive and overly sanctimonious, and I had no ground to stand on. By then, Whitney and I were in about the same place. I felt her pain. I knew she must be hurting and that she definitely was killing herself, because I was, too.
Whitney got through that period of her illness, and over the years she would get better, then get worse, and then get better again. So would I. But the one thing she never seemed to do was fully accept that she had a problem. I’ve heard people in the past few days blame Bobby Brown, and that’s typical of those who don’t understand addiction. Bobby Brown was not Whitney Houston’s problem; Whitney’s problems were her own. He may have been a symptom, but it’s pretty well established in the addiction field that no one can make someone else an addict any more than someone can make another person diabetic. I can’t say whether or not Whitney was an addict; only she could have said that. But I do recall seeing her tell Oprah Winfrey in a 2009 interview that she was OK now; she still drank alcohol occasionally, but she was OK. And Whitney may have been OK, but for those who suffer from addiction, it’s really kind of not OK to drink alcohol. At least, that’s the case for me.
We don’t yet know exactly what killed Whitney Houston, although we can guess. And it would be disingenuous for us to say that we aren’t already doing just that. After all, she was only 48. I can only imagine how terribly her family and close friends are hurting right now. I know that my own family and close friends can imagine that quite easily.
Today, I’m happy with my lot in life. I love my work and wouldn’t want to be doing anything other than what I do. I would no sooner trade what I have in Charlotte today to be back at MTV, or in the middle of the music industry, with all that money, than I would trade a warm massage for a heart attack. I love my community, trust my close friends today and feel blessed. But when I heard that Whitney Houston had died Saturday, it shook me to my core. I wished I could have been there for her, but what could I or anyone else have done? All I could tell myself was, “There but for grace go I.” Rest peacefully, Whitney. No matter what anyone says, they can never take away your dignity.