Whitney Houston was more than a voice, a face, and a lithe body spangled in starlight. If nothing else, she was a deeply emotional woman, with outsized feelings that often seemed to get the better of her. And she was mortal, as her recent death in a bathtub at the Beverly Hilton showed all too clearly.
Even before her death, Whitney had lost the higher registers of her voice, as well as its crystalline clarity. Like a model losing her beauty or a mogul going bankrupt, her assets had dwindled. For more than a decade, she had given herself over to mad, masochistic, symbiotic love for a man who abused her. For more than a decade, she had taken mind-altering, soul-diminishing drugs with him, drugs that ruined her lungs, her vocal chords, and her spirit.
Why had she done this? In a recent interview, she said that she had wanted to be a good wife, a loyal partner. Her man had been jealous of her ever-growing success. So even as she belted "I Will Always Love You," the record-breaking song that emerged from her starring role in a Hollywood movie, her husband needed further proof of that love. Would she stay home with him? Put him first? Get high with him? She would -- even after he spat on her, tore at her ego with vicious insults, and watched as her life and career slowly sank to the depths.
Raised in a church atmosphere, a sweet young singer in her mother's Newark choir, Whitney was vulnerable and innocent when the world discovered her. Fame was jarring, as it often is - and so she sought a more authentic, personal love. The man who pursued Whitney Houston told her he could see "the real girl" inside. And that is what we all want: to be seen. And thus her addiction began, to the sometime peace that intense love can bring, particularly when it is sexual, and even more particularly when it is uneven, exciting and dangerous. In seeking this man's constancy, Whitney flirted not only with drugs and abuse; she flirted with the annihilation of herself - the death of her own meaning and value. Bobby Brown was no God, nor was she, and in their mutual tragedy, we sense all the pain that grasping at straws for moral support and emotional security can bring.
I don't know what she could have done differently. Whitney's ability to give was always there in her music; when she opened her mouth, she opened the heavens for us. For those brief moments of sound, we soared in the stratosphere, carried on the bravery and heart of her sustained, impossible notes. Whitney Houston took us to heaven, a place she often thought about. And when a man offered her the same sense of flight, of paradise, she was too romantic and naive to say no. So she took the journey, and crashed. For years after she left her marriage, she sought to put herself back, weaning herself off cocaine and dreaming, idly, of selling fruit at a stand, anonymous, somewhere in the Caribbean.
At the time of her death, Whitney Houston was not living on that peaceful West Indian island. She was raising her daughter alone, and she was performing. But now, she was no longer the young and beautiful miracle. The star was coming back, voice altered, and she had faltered on stage. Audiences had booed her from the arenas, but Whitney still tried to give what she could. Her voice, now lower and smokier, would have been more than legitimate in a jazz boite, or on a connoisseur's turntable, and her musicality was still there - but the public wanted the ingénue of old. It is tragic that this woman, now only 48, needed to draw her courage from cocktails at the bar, from Xanax and lorazepam. It is even more tragic that these drew her ever farther away from the comfort she sought on that last day of her life. Whitney Houston was going to a pre-Grammy party that evening, and makeup and hair people stood ready to create the illusion once again. Somewhere inside her, she knew that she would not be enough for us. As with her marriage, she had given everything and more, but it would never be returned.
Death is the ultimate disillusion. We know, now, that our icon was a person who suffered horribly even as we enjoyed listening to her, even as we watched, evaluated, and even laughed at her romantic foibles, substance abuse, and futile attempts to recreate her early peaks.
We know, too, that talent, fame, money, looks and love can be double-edged swords, and that this brave adventurer gave us more than her music. She gave us her life, entire. And for all that she got back, it was never even close to enough.