Poor Whitney Houston. She didn’t have a prayer. Found dead at 48 yesterday in her LA hotel room, presumably of a cocaine overdose, it was the end everybody expected.
It wasn’t always like that for “Nippy,” as she was known as a child for the way her nipples poked against her shirt. The daughter of the great soul/gospel/harmony singer Cissy Houston, her career got off to an auspicious start, singing harmonies in the studio alongside her famous mother at fourteen and then, at sixteen, supplying lead vocals for New York’s hottest no-wave funk band, Bill Laswell’s Material. With a stratospheric range, effortless nuance and technique, it seemed that she could choose whatever direction she wanted to follow.
Until Clive Davis got ahold of her. Terrified that a black superstar singer wouldn’t be commercially viable during the Reagan era, the record label bigwig insisted that she straighten her hair, and he had her skin tone bleached on her album covers. He also made sure that her material was as bland, and as white as possible. Houston’s biggest hit was a soporific cover of Dolly Parton’s I Will Always Love You that made the original seem racy by comparison.
And there came a point where Houston, a closeted lesbian from a devout Christian family, simply couldn’t continue to maintain the image thrust on her. A sham marriage to former teen boy-band idol Bobby Brown marked her descent into crack addiction, to the point where she let a reality tv show film the atrocity exhibition that her life had become.
Late-career “comebacks” were outnumbered by public episodes of bizarreness. By 2012, with the major label mechanism that had propelled her to stardom dead in the water, she’d reached the end of the line.
Give a listen to Whitney Houston singing Memories with Material: a cruel inkling of what could have been but never was.