Slightly chilling, isn’t it, that Whitney Houston died alone in a hotel room as a guest for Grammy Awards when the artists who had long eclipsed her were probably surrounded by stylists, publicists, fans and record producers making ready to celebrate their success. Houston’s death is almost a memento mori to younger artists to be careful what you wish for.
Nobody under forty will remember the pure exuberance of the girl with a five octave voice who set the world on fire in the 1980s and early 90s who appeared so effortlessly talented and seemed to fulfil the promise of godmother Aretha Franklin and aunt Dionne Warwick. It is pitiful to think that by the time X-Factor contestants were crucifying I Will Always Love You in recent years that Houston had long descended into a narcotic hell with both body and voice ravaged by decades of booze and powder. I’m not entirely sure why, but the fact that she was 48 seems to add to the sadness. To be last seen falling out of a nightclub at that age is not something anyone would wish for: let alone a woman who had achieved so much so young.
The Internet is already swimming with tribute photographs inscribed with her greatest hit I Will Always Love You which now seems like an empty platitude when you consider that it was the years out of the public eye rather than the moments in it that pushed Houston towards her demise. To be honest, the last time I really gave Whitney Houston thought was the year 2000 when I was writing a column called Style Police for The Independent on Sunday. She had made a comeback with a song called It’s Not Right But It’s OK and rocked it out on Top of the Pops in a floor length black leather column dress looking as if demons had been conquered and the destructive marriage to Bobbi Brown buried in the past.
Comebacks are a rite of passage for superstars; particularly the ones who understand that the tempo of a successful career necessitates preserving energy and staying out of the public eye at times. Houston had lift off again and all was right and OK. So on this last time I looked, it appeared that Houston had galvanised, stabilised and emerged in the spotlight relatively unscathed. And then her death is announced 12-years later when the world’s attention was focused on a music business in LA that had all but forgotten Whitney Houston. You can’t help but think how disturbing fame must be to the human mind; particularly when it visits like a bad witch at a christening as was the case with H0uston.
People might find it incomprehensible that after all the platinum records, the hundreds of millions of dollars, the houses and the private jets, a woman like Houston may still be pursued by demons. I would surmise that Whitney Houston set the barre so high so young that hers was a success impossible to live up to. Every hit that charted lower than number one and every high c missed in a live performance must have been a knife to the heart. Younger talents appear, more time is spent in the shadows rather than the spotlight and only the oblivion that narcotics bring can take the bitter taste away.
Houston’s death must have given the front row guests at the Grammy’s and the BAFTA awards much pause for thought. The public sees gowns, white veneers, bodies groomed like thoroughbreds and scent the sweet smell of success. What lies beneath is perhaps what W. H. Auden called ‘the dog beneath the skin’: a visceral understanding that appearances deceive. Meryl Streep’s acceptance of the Best Actress BAFTA last night for The Iron Lady was the complete counterbalance to Whitney Houston’s end. Streep stoated up to the stage of the Royal Opera House as if channeling Bette Midler, lost a stiletto on the stairs and rambled amiably while Colin Firth played Prince Charming.
This was a woman so comfortable in her own skin and with her own talent who clearly had a wry twinkle in the eye about a business that is allegedly unkind to older actresses. Streep was a joy to watch. Reminded me of an anecdote Elaine Stritch told about a producer who had watched her perform in Company after having one over the eight. Instead of tearing into Stritch, the producer simply said ‘Great talent, Elaine. Don’t f*** it up’. As we all know, Stritch conquered her demons, checked into AA and is now in that magical period of a career when you just have to walk onto a stage to get a standing ovation.
On a happier note, the BAFTA winner for the best original screenplay was a chappie called Peter Straughan with whom I was at university. We appeared in an Edinburgh Festival revue called Bastardhead that won the critical accolade ‘quasi Pirandellian garbage…could be a cult hit’. The boy done good.