The Grammy Awards on Sunday night had a perceptive pall because of the unexpected death of pop legend Whitney Houston on Saturday. She was just 48. Rumors about the circumstances of her death have already sprung up throughout the Internet – most attributing her early demise to her storied problems with drugs.
In a bit of sad irony, the pre-show of the Grammys was held when no one knew about Houston’s death. During this portion of the ceremony, the Recording Academy gave out hardware that wasn’t going to get televised, including giving legendary diva Diana Ross her first Grammy for lifetime achievement. Unlike Houston toward the end of her life, Ross exuded health and exuberance at the ceremony. Dragging her photogenic brood on stage, she appeared svelte and easily looked about 10 years younger than her true age. In contrast, reports say that Houston’s final public appearances were bedraggled, disoriented and confused. The contrast between the older Ross and the younger Houston seem cruel now.
When Amy Winehouse died she was compared by many to Janis Joplin. I compared her to Judy Garland, but this comparison seems more apt with Houston. Like Garland, Houston spent the last of her years making a series of comebacks. Each time she appeared on stage or on television, her fans held their breath, hoping that she’ll get through the song dignity intact. And when she triumphed (for even towards the end, she still was able to summon together her massive talents when she had to), people seemed to heave a sigh of relief, guessing that she was back.
Houston’s career was born out of the MTV generation and she was perfect for it: she was beautiful so she was able to star in music videos and attract a young audience. But unlike a lot of the pop thrushes that came on the radio and television, Houston could actually sing. Raised on a musical diet of gospel and with a pedigree that included gospel great/session legend Cissy Houston as mom and pop giant Dionne Warwick who was her cousin, Houston’s powerful, giant voice seemed to transcend the sometimes-banal pop ditties she was given.
In the Mount Rushmore of pop idols of the 80s and 90s, along with Madonna, Michael Jackson and Price, Houston’s smooth visage would most assuredly be included. But interestingly enough, until she married fellow pop star Bobby Brown, Houston’s image was truly all about her music. Unlike Madonna, her public persona didn’t lend itself to a story arc – where the Material Girl used pop music to usher in her own one-woman sexual and gender revolution, Houston seemed merely content on wowing audiences with her voice.
If her death was related to her problems with drugs, then the prudes and the scolds will definitely voice again their concern about drugs and celebrity. They’ll wonder if these figures are appropriate role models. Some will even suggest that while tragic, Houston’s death was inevitable. Unlike Winehouse, however, Houston seemed on a bit of an uptic in her life and career. Her last record, 2009’s I Look to You went number one and sold millions, and she was filming a remake of the 70s musical drama Sparkle (and judging from some of the paparazzi shots, she looked stunning). She shed Brown how many felt was a rough influence. Still, despite these triumphs, there were still reports of erratic behavior and a quick stint back in rehab.
Fans of Houston may console themselves in her music – for the most part it’s a lasting legacy. The interesting thing about her songs were their simplicity. There was no context or message – they were simple dance songs or Broadway-like ballads that were crafted solely to show off her Olympian-sized voice. Some age better than the others, but at her best, Houston was a natural successor to women like Ross, Franklin or Barbra Streisand – she was a definitive voice of the 80s and 90s. Her stamp exists in virtually every female pop singer today – from last night’s Grammy champ Adele to Christina Aguilera to Beyonce, all these younger women owe a mighty debt to Houston.
And in the end, it shouldn’t matter how she died, or how she lived the last few years of her life. Outside her family and friends, Houston’s lasting impact should be the music. It should only be about the music.