“So goodbye, please don’t cry. We both know I’m not what you need.”
This is Whitney Houston singing, now, beyond the grave: She is stoic, and, with hindsight, prescient.
Her tragic end was perhaps not unexpected but startling at first glance, then painful: Who does not remember (or know of) the radiantly beautiful 22-year-old girl and her astonishing 1985 self-titled album?
Astonishing, not for the many prizes it won or records it broke, but for the first sustained hit of that voice, a scale-leaping powerhouse that felt like the very movement of the Music of the Spheres (that Elizabethan cosmological notion of the rolling sound of perfect harmony; of perfect love.)
Every inch the diva – big, lacquered hair; a mask of makeup; talons, sky-high heels and glittering, sculptured gowns, Ms. Houston confessed to be overwhelmed by all of this glam-armature.
She was, after all, the worst kind of diva: the tragic disaster-in-waiting, great of stature and brokenhearted, like Piaf, Holiday or Callas.
And, like Garland, who also died at 48, she was violently mocked, toward the end.
No longer: the public outcry is great and likeminded: “a beautiful angel,” reads a typical tweet “now singin in heaven.”
Typical – but kindhearted, given that “#CrackKills” trended simultaneously with the dreadful news of the artist having died at the Beverly Hilton hotel.
In the early afternoon, in a bathtub, possibly surrounded by a narrative of pill bottles.
She was to have made a rare appearance at the Grammys on Sunday, and receive an award.
A video has emerged of her singing Jesus Loves Me briefly on Thursday with Kelly Price, who looks lovesick in Ms. Houston’s warm, queenly presence.
Alternatively, her lifelong friend and mentor Clive Davis went on to throw a pre-Grammy party in the hotel, exactly four floors below the site where her poor body was being scrutinized by coroners: “She loved music and she loved this night that celebrated music,” he explained, weakly.
Stories and tributes are being hastily assembled, forlorn rumours about her, ironically, joining the judges on The Voice (she was once known by this name). But in truth, Ms. Houston, once the biggest female singer in the world, had all but disappeared from sight, after a fractured comeback, beginning with the release of 2009’s very successful I Look to You, and ending with a trip to a rehab clinic.
In the middle of this comeback, which feels so fragile now, Ms. Houston finally admitted – to Oprah Winfrey – that she was an addict. She explained how to smoke rock and she said she had lost herself in the drugs.
This was a far cry from the imperious lady who told Diane Sawyer, incredibly, in 2002, that she was clean; that “Crack is cheap.” “Crack is whack,” she infamously snapped, evoking Keith Haring’s graffiti in a ball court near the Harlem River.
Incredible because she and her then-husband Bobby Brown were clearly high all the time: By 2006, the Enquirer would glibly publish photographs of Ms. Houston’s private bathroom: a filthy pig’s sty, filled with squalid drug paraphernalia.
But Ms. Houston seemed to be trying this time. She divorced her volatile husband; she tried to mother her wild daughter; and she appeared in public overweight: great news for a crack addict, yet still she was ridiculed, now for being fat and unattractive.
She went on tour, and was booed, and stormed out on, especially for a wretched version of I Will Always Love You, performed at London’s O2 in 2010. The video is hard to watch: She tries to climb the notes and cannot.
Ms. Houston spoke, plaintively, of her voice’s mulishness this way: “Sometimes the old girl sings, but not tonight. I want to do it, but she doesn't want to.”
It was this song, always this mammoth anthem, this vocal feat of strength, that defined her. It formed the plot of her hit film, 1992’s The Bodyguard; it trounced her other, upbeat or sweetly sad, Number 1 songs by sheer virtue of its presence: To hear the song, whether you like it or not, is to witness a natural miracle.
A miracle like “The Voice” itself, extended to Ms. Houston, it seems, by God Himself, on a glass platter, both of which she took great time and effort to smash into bits.
She was in pain; she hurt. How does this concern us?
In the centre of the song, written by the wondrous Dolly Parton, Ms. Houston extends the following blessing to listeners: “I hope life treats you kind. And I wish you joy and happiness”
Did we hope the same for her?
Or did we watch, from an aloof distance, her anguish, as though living people are characters in such tragedies as Macbeth and Valley of the Dolls: object lessons and communicable illnesses to be wary of; despaired of, in the abstract.
Shame on those who booed the old girl: Ms. Houston’s voice, and her, its unhappy messenger.
May this wanting, ragged soul find its way home, with our heartfelt, terrible regrets.
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