A voice of triumph & pain

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A voice of triumph & pain

Few pop singers have been gifted with a voice as glorious as Whitney Houston’s. Lauded for her impeccable technique and polish, qualities that elevated her above almost every other star of her era, she was a true pop diva, writes Jon Caramanica.

Whitney Houston died a cautionary tale, but the most painful cautionary tales are about people who were heroes once.

That is how she arrived in the mid-1980s, a flawless vocalist singing impeccable songs and singlehandedly inserting gospel and classic-soul theatrics into mainstream pop. She was a sunbeam — radiant, perspective-altering, impossible to touch.

After her greatest years were behind her, she remained in the public eye as something thornier — a drug addict, and a casualty of the tabloid and reality-TV era, ill-equipped for ever-increasing levels of scrutiny. Houston’s fall attracted so much notice because she had so far to go, down from the clouds into an abyss.

The bottom finally came last Saturday, when Houston, 48, was found in her room at the Beverly Hilton, in Beverly Hills, California, a few hours before the annual pre-Grammy gala held by Clive Davis, the Arista Records founder who discovered and helped mold her into one of the pre-eminent pop stars of the last 30 years.

Houston was R&B’s great moderniser, slowly but surely reconciling the ambition and praise of the church with the movements and needs of the body. Her voice was clean and strong, with barely any grit, well suited to the songs of love and aspiration that were the breakthrough hits from her first two albums, Whitney Houston and Whitney — the post-quiet storm ballads You Give Good Love and Saving All My Love for You; the naive, bopping, flush-of-love dance tracks I Wanna Dance With Somebody and So Emotional. Only a small handful of her 1980s hits — Didn’t We Almost Have It All and Where Do Broken Hearts Go chief among them — explored love’s dark side.

Hers was a voice of triumph and achievement, and it made for any number of stunning, time-stopping vocal performances — her version of Dolly Parton’s I Will Always Love You, from the soundtrack to The Bodyguard, which topped the Billboard singles chart for 14 weeks; her dazzling Star-Spangled Banner, sung before the 1991 Super Bowl; or huge, authoritative songs like Greatest Love of All and One Moment in Time, which sounded like they could have been national anthems in their own right.

Houston’s signature was to let her Brobdingnagian voice soar unfettered — from a lesser vocalist, that would have been a gimmick, but from her, it was par for the course, just a freakishly gifted athlete leapfrogging everyone around her.

She was, alongside Michael Jackson and Madonna, one of the crucial figures hybridising pop in the 1980s, though her strategy was unique, and far less radical than those of her peers. Jackson and Madonna were by turns lascivious and brutish and, crucially, willing to let their production speak more loudly than their voices, an option Houston never went for.

Also, she was less prolific than either of them, achieving most of her renown on the strength of her first three solo albums and one soundtrack, all released from 1985 to 1992. If she was less influential than they were in the years since, it was only because her gift was so rare, so impossible to mimic. Jackson and Madonna built worldviews around their voices; Houston’s voice was  worldview. She was someone more to be admired, like a museum piece, than to be emulated.

She also had a stiff backbone, barely conceding to the changing times. She didn’t much bother with hip-hop, even as it usurped soul music’s place at the core of black pop and everyone around her adapted: singers like Mariah Carey, one of her few vocal equals, who became a willing hip-hop co-conspirator; or Mary J Blige, who had it in her DNA from the start of her career.

Instead, Houston’s 1998 comeback album My Love Is Your Love — late-period Houston was forever in a comeback; this was just the first — was modern only in incremental ways. Houston’s real progress on this album was mood: For the first time, she was testy, aggrieved, lashing out. Heartbreak Hotel and It’s Not Right But It’s Okay saw her access a viciousness that had been all but absent to that point, whether because of the polishing influence of Davis, or because of the polite side of the gospel sound she inherited.

Maybe its emergence had something to do with the volatility of her personal life. In 1992, she’d married the R&B bad boy and former New Edition front man Bobby Brown, and later, after they divorced, she painted the marriage as a chaotic one. It certainly read as a study in opposites, both in demeanor as well as in ideas about R&B — Houston austere and regal, Brown louche and sweaty.

They lasted 15 years as a married couple, a period that coincided with declines in the quality and frequency of Houston’s music. But she remained a star, even as the meaning of that role changed. Her meltdowns garnered as much attention as her hits once did. This was the period in which Whitney Houston, the voice, was eclipsed by Whitney Houston, the sound bite.

There was her memorable and rambunctious acknowledgment of Brown from the stage of the 2000 Grammy Awards as “the original king of R&B.” The reality show “Being Bobby Brown,” which aired on Bravo for one tumultuous season in 2005, showed the two to share a love that was affectionate, tough, complex, and sometimes outright ugly. It also spawned a catchphrase for Houston — “hell to the no,” an emphatic and disjointed way of expressing displeasure.

It made her an easy punch line. That show was the public’s longest sustained exposure to Houston in almost a decade, and the changes in her were striking. She looked not just lean, but gaunt, and she was both robust and erratic, the sort of reality that rarely makes it to reality television.

Television had been unkind to her before. Asked about her drug habit by Diane Sawyer in a 2002 interview, she was evasive, uncomfortably intense, and sloppy: “I want to see the receipts,” she said impertinently. By the time she sat with Oprah Winfrey in 2009, her divorce from Brown complete, she was more forthcoming and self-aware, but still not quite steady. (In the mid-2000s, Houston went to rehab at least twice, and she was in rehab again as recently as last year.)

Coming from someone who was once pure music royalty, these flashes of public instability were true jolts, completely at odds with her early vivacity. Maybe, beneath that old sheen, she was always so messy. But strangely, her troubled later life finally gave her a title that her music never could: Whitney Houston, queen of pain, another throne no one could deny her.

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