The Life, Death & Rebirth...

The Times: Whitney Houston: the life, death and rebirth of a pop princess

The fall and rise of Whitney Houston, who appears on The X Factor on Sunday, has been played out in public
Peter Robinson

If you cast your thoughts across the past 24 years of pop history, Whitney Houston comes equipped with very little in the way of iconic imagery for one of the biggest-selling recording artists to date. Ring the bell on the front desk of your local lookalike agency, for example, and you’ll be presented with a disappointingly sparse array of Houstons. While her peers in the 1980s were making life easy for future tribute acts with their sequined gloves, purple wardrobes and conical bras, Houston simply became known as “The Voice”. Whether turned towards ballads or dancefloor smashes, hers were pipes that could knock the froth off a cappuccino at 50 paces. Think of Houston and you invariably think of a career captured in one dramatic drum thud followed by two perfectly pitched words: “and I”.

That, at least, is the image The X Factor will be hoping we recall on Sunday, when the singer flies in to perform her new single live on the show. After half a decade of declaring that perfectly capable vocalists are nowhere up to the standards of the legendary Whitney Houston, Simon Cowell will join 14 million viewers in finding out whether in 2009 even Whitney Houston is an adequate Whitney Houston. Her comeback has already resulted in a No 1 album in America but it follows seven years in the wilderness, during which Houston hit the headlines after legal disputes, daily drug use, divorce and rehab. Is her voice still the voice, or just a voice? For The X Factor, Houston’s perfect collision of star quality, big tunes and extraordinary vocal talent has provided a useful benchmark for six seasons, so dark days could follow if her well-established brilliance, this assumed truth at the heart of the X Factor belief system, suddenly ceases to exist, sending the show’s internal logic spinning off into a light-entertainment black hole.

To understand the lows — and the media always perceive there to be more at stake with “voice in a million” singers such as Houston and Amy Winehouse rather than with the more limited range of a singer such as Britney Spears — it’s important fully to consider the highs. In the 1980s Houston was so wholesome and healthy that she became the face of Diet Pepsi, this innocent girl who was discovered while singing in a gospel choir and whose appeal seemed to span demographics like few before or since. She instantly became the queen of the wind-machine-friendly pop ballad: Didn’t We Almost Have It All?, Greatest Love of All, One Moment in Time, Saving All My Love for You and Where Do Broken Hearts Go? were all released in the three-year period leading up to 1988, but disco hits such as So Emotional and I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me) kept Houston’s feet on the dancefloor, too.

By 1992 Mariah Carey was strongly established as the new Houston, but just as Houston’s transition from pop princess to womanly warbler had been seamless, so she responded to this arrival of a younger model by branching out into film with The Bodyguard and Waiting to Exhale and then, in 1998, staging a fantastic pop reinvention with It’s Not Right But It’s Okay. Her Greatest Hits double album in 2000 featured one of the most audaciously, brilliantly self-congratulatory album sleeves of recent times, featuring the singer on step ladder with a drill, hanging yet another platinum disc in a room whose walls, ceiling and floor were lined with other platinum discs. It wasn’t too much of an exaggeration: some estimates put her total sales as getting on for 200 million units.

That Houston has been a reference point for so long is all the more impressive if one considers that when The X Factor first aired five years ago, she was of no mind to be promoting a new album, and seemed more involved in promoting the output of her husband at the time, Bobby Brown, via a stupendously ill-advised reality show for Bravo called Being Bobby Brown. Houston had already spent most of the 21st century appearing to fall apart rather publicly, with rapid weight loss, cancelled shows, a high-profile sacking from the Oscars and drug abuse spiralling out of control.

In 2002 she tackled the attention in a single, Whatchlookinat?, which declared: “I don’t understand why you keep peepin’ me/ when you don’t even like me/ you’re after me and my man/ Don’t think you’re stressing me/ ’cause your lies don’t excite me”.

Around that time Houston agreed to take part in a TV interview with Dianne Sawyer, one of those fantastically offensive US showbiz interviewers who tackled the singer (described as “[singing] to us from the doorway to death”) head on. “Is it alcohol?” she asked. “Marijuana? Is it cocaine? Is it pills? All?” At one point in the interview, which you can watch on YouTube, Houston denies taking drugs and Sawyer’s face is gripped by a look of mock incredulity so utterly graceless that even Jeremy Paxman might consider it slightly bad-mannered. “I’ll grant you that I partied,” Houston eventually admits. It is worth remembering that American definitions of “partying” do not begin and end with paper hats and trifle and, as Houston would later admit, in this instance involved daily cocaine and marijuana binges that dated back to 1992, the year in which she was at the height of her Bodyguard fame and, more significantly, married Brown.

By the time Being Bobby Brown arrived on screen in 2005 it showed the Browns living in chaos and Houston was often portrayed as a disorientated Marge Simpson character in a baseball cap and jogging bottoms. There was a lot of shouting between the couple. In one typical scene, during a camping expedition, Houston demands that Brown has sex with her behind a tree.

Being Bobby Brown didn’t attract the huge audiences that MTV’s The Osbournes once reached but it did for Houston’s public image what The Osbournes did for Ozzy’s Prince of Darkness character. Which is to say, it killed it. The show wasn’t really about being Bobby at all, as Brown discovered when Houston refused to appear in the second season and Bravo coincidentally lost all interest in recommissioning the show. Unfortunately, by the end of season one the damage had been done.

At the height of her marketability, Houston had been the definitive American pop star, capable of delivering spectacularly blank interviews with a manner that was both charismatic and somehow thunderously dull. Faced with someone this clean, the media either take it all at face value, or suspect that the star is, instead, simply being rather discreet. Houston always received the benefit of the doubt, but by the 2000s, the smoke had cleared and the mirrors were being put to more creative use. The most shocking images came in 2006, when publications including The Sun and The National Enquirer ran photographs of Houston’s squalid bathroom, a mess you’d mistake for something left behind in a hastily vacated squat.

Things were clearly getting bad when papers had used up all their “Houston, we have a problem” headlines: The Sun opted for “Houston at her Whit’s end”, stating that Whitney “is a paranoid wreck hopelessly hooked on crack”, while the Enquirer ran with the less elegant “Trash of a drug addict”. Brown’s sister Tina excused leaking the snaps, explaining — with the usual, rather pompous familial concern of a woman being offered money to sell her story — that “the truth needs to come out ... Maybe this interview will save her life”. The interview did nothing: it took rehab, then an intervention from Houston’s mother, the soul singer Cissy Houston, then a divorce.

In 2002, with her personal life already going awry, Houston’s career stumbled too. She released her least accomplished offering to date, but with personal songs such as Whatchulookinat? it at last brought some personal sentiment, and some soul, to a voice that had long been criticised for being inexperienced at showcasing any real emotion. Just Whitney became Houston’s worst-selling studio album but it certainly set the stage for future releases to collide songs with genuine feeling. At least, that would certainly have been the hope of her career-long mentor and A&R guru Clive Davis, who had re-signed Houston to Epic in 2001 for a six-album deal worth a record-breaking $100 million.

Fast-forward to July this year when Davis held a press conference at a London hotel to announce Houston’s comeback album, I Look to You. Such events usually feel quite insincere, as international executives jet in to present the label’s big priorities for the next quarter with all the elegance and imagination of a Dragons’ Den garden-hose pitch. Davis’s speech was more personal and when Houston appeared after the album’s first playback, it was clear that this was something of a rebirth. The tunes are in place, with the slinky single Million Dollar Bill having become something of an autumnal anthem and, most importantly, the voice is still, unmistakably, The Voice.

Pop stars stage comebacks all the time, after the birth of a child, after a world tour, after a three-month gap between singles, but very few are a return from the brink of oblivion. Fresh, excited, somehow (unbelievably, after Being Bobby Brown) rather dignified, at the age of 46 and after 24 years in the game, Houston seems to find herself at the start of something special.

Whitney Houston appears on The X Factor on Sunday, ITV1, 7.45pm .



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