Sunday, February 12, 2012

Whitney Houston: A Remembrance

We Will Always Love You...

I was at a surprisingly crowded theater, about to watch The Woman In Black, when one of the people behind me finally got off the phone before the trailers were to begin.  What she told her companions, and which I overheard, completely shocked me.

Whitney Houston died.

With moments to spare I popped open my phone and rushed to get Internet to see if this was true or a crazy rumor.

Sadly, it was true.  Whitney Houston, dead at 48.

In certain ways, the news was both surprising and not at the same time.   It's surprising in that she was still remarkably young, and because Houston appeared to be returning to some form of normalcy.  However, it was not surprising because of her various troubles, all self-inflicted. 

I don't think there is any dispute that Whitney Houston had A Voice.  It isn't surprising: her mother is gospel legend Cissy Houston, her cousin is Dionne Warwick, her godmother is Aretha.  She was surrounded from birth with glorious sound, so it was not surprising that Houston would have an amazing voice.

However, the public still was amazed just how powerful and beautiful Whitney Houston's voice.  She had a clear voice whose range was simply spectacular.  Her songs were both light (I Wanna Dance With Somebody) and remarkably dark (Saving All My Love For You at first appears to be a tender love song, but it's really a song from the viewpoint of a mistress waiting for her married lover).  Add to that, she appeared to be a sweet girl who could belt out songs, bringing a power to her rendition without being over-dramatic.

One needs no further proof of her power as a singer than with the rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner at the Super Bowl.   We had just entered the First Gulf War, and the nation was understandably on edge.  Her performance was simply perfect (given how current renditions from Christina Aguilera to Steven Tyler fail to either remember the words or attempt too hard to put their own stamp on it, forgetting that it's a NATIONAL anthem that should be accorded respect).  I don't think there has been any other time that the National Anthem became a Top Twenty Hit. 

Technically, her rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner was so powerful that after September 11th, it was brought back to the American mind, a rallying cry for a battered nation.  The performance now has become the Citizen Kane of national anthem renditions: all other performances of that song are measured against it. 

Thanks to YouTube, we'll always easy access to it, and after seeing it again, I'll admit: I got a little misty-eyed.  I also see WHY it is considered the best version.  As I stated earlier, she actually remembered all the words and pronounced everything correctly/perfectly (if only others could do the same).  However, she sang it in a way that was true to her own style without drawing attention to that fact.  In other words, she had her moment when she hit a pitch-perfect high note on the last use of the word "free" (which sent the crowd roaring with approval) but she didn't try to make the song HER moment.  She looks pleased, perhaps even amazed that she hit that note herself, and the euphoria of that plus the celebration by those in the crowd pumped her up to bring down the house. 

At the end of her song, she looked genuinely happy: with a performance that was brilliant, and with the fact that her country at that moment loved her for doing such a great job with our National Anthem. 

It isn't a surprise that she segwayed into film.  Her debut in The Bodyguard may not have been liked by most of my fellow critics, and I won't go on record to say that it's a great film by any stretch.  The argument that she was playing herself is a fair one.  However, for my part I thought it was a well-intentioned love story that knew what it was and I can't find fault when The Bodyguard was trying nothing more than to create an emotional response to its story of a doomed love between a guard and his diva protectee. 

I'll say this much about The Bodyguard: no, it's not the best-acted film (the idea that Houston's character is such a fantastic actress that she would become the first African-American to win a Best Actress Oscar is laughable given her 'off-screen' performance) nor is it perhaps the best-written film.  However, I did find it entertaining, not taxing in the thinking department (in truth, who is stalking her is somehow a subplot to the film, a pretext to get our leads together), but in terms of a love story, it isn't half-bad. 

The true greatness of The Bodyguard is in the soundtrack.  Here is where Houston excels.  As much as her version of Dolly Parton's I Will Always Love You became so ubiquitous that it became a cliche to hear at weddings or funerals, her performance of it is still incredible.  She knew that this was a love song, and that it had to have an incredible push to its crescendo, and Houston delivered. 

As time went, she did improve as an actress, although her screen appearances were remarkably small: Waiting to Exhale, The Preacher's Wife, the television special of Rodger & Hammerstein's Cinderella, and the upcoming remake of Sparkle.  I figure that if things had turned out better, she would have become a good actress, one particularly adept at musicals or ones with musical numbers.  Granted, I don't recall Houston singing outside the soundtrack to Waiting to Exhale, and I wasn't big on the film, but I think she was finding more confidence in herself as an actual actress. 

Then came this...

This is not how a diva is suppose to look.  However, this is what this great voice was reduced to by her own actions.  A great deal of blame has been put on her marriage to Bobby Brown, formerly of New Edition.  She admitted that she became involved in drugs (though not crack, giving the now infamous response that she was basically too rich to use crack and that 'crack is whack'.  I used to say that she was misquoted, and what she meant to say was that she was 'whacked on crack'). 

Sadly, for many years, she was the authoress of her own destruction, both of her health and her reputation.  Her eccentricities were becoming more pronounced, her behavior more erratic.  Somehow, a woman who had this tremendous voice, who was seen as a gold standard of performing, became a sad wreck.  We all watched, and laughed.  It's a sad aspect of human nature to see gifted people crumble under their own foolish decisions and in Houston's case, an almost pathological fixation with her husband who already had fathered children outside of marriage and was her partner in drugs. 

She might have had people around her telling her that Brown and her own actions were leading to a setback in her career.  It wasn't that she had lost her talent, but she had lost her way.  Cancelled performances, bad performances (she had been fired from appearing at the Oscars due to her sheer inability to do her job, which was to sing) that point, she was far too self-indulgent and self-destructive to care.  We all saw how she had changed both physically and vocally, but the lure of the coke and the booze was simply too strong, with an enabling husband and a court of Yes Men at her side.

I figure that eventually, she did find her way back, but alas, it was if not too late then too little.  She could no longer be relied to deliver the brilliant musical turns that had become her trademark.  Her voice was no longer so pure, so clear, as it had been in her heyday.  One didn't want to follow one of the Oscar-nominated songs from The Bodyguard and Run To You as Run AWAY From You.  Houston was not so much making a comeback as starting to fight to get back to where she was.

I don't think she would given how much her voice had changed.  I was reminded of Maria Callas: like Houston, she was The Diva with an amazing voice that by the end was a shadow of its former self.  She could still sing, she could do it well, but not to the dizzying heights the voice could reach.  Seeing some of her later performances, where Houston COULDN'T hit those high notes (and where frankly, the only thing that was high was apparently her) is painful, and not just because some of her singing is so shockingly and sadly off-key.  It is painful because she appears almost oblivious to the fact that she CAN'T carry the song, and certainly not to the level she used to.  One can be tempted to laugh, but for those who knew what a power she had, it only makes one shake their head in utter sadness. 

In particular, there was the Brisbane, Australia show in 2010.  People walked out, some I understand demanded a refund, and the show was far too reminiscent of Amy Winehouse final show in Belgrade...minus the obvious signs of intoxication.   

Still, Houston's death is shocking.  Despite all her troubles, all her disasters, all her oddball antics, she had A Voice: one that was clear, clean, pure, and remarkable.  The sadness of it all: the loss of that voice, of her reputation, of her notoriety coming from her weird appearances than on her singing. 

A Waste.  A Sheer Waste.  These stories are too familiar to see repeated over and over and once more.

Now, it would be unfair to say that drugs were the direct result of Houston's death.  At the time of this writing the autopsy has yet to be performed.  However, it is not hard to imagine that if anything all the drugs that she did consume didn't affect her health in some way.  Drugs may not have been a direct cause of death, but given her past, it isn't surprising that they would be suspected by the public.  Whatever killed her, it was not worth all the sorrow and destruction of one of the best voices heard in pop music. 

For myself, I will focus on her songs, her beautiful voice, and her youthful joie de vivre as opposed to the wreck she allowed herself to become.  Her songs will still be played, and one hopes that Whitney Houston's legacy will be the music she made, not the disaster she ended up becoming.

In the end, one of her songs best sums up the life of Whitney Houston:

Didn't We Almost Have It All?


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