There are few things as depressing as wasted talent, which is why Whitney Houston’s sudden death on February 11 came as equal parts shock and relief to the world of pop music. Shock, because it is always a jolt to lose somebody famous; fame has a way of turning people into the background of one’s life, and no matter how distant one is from famous people, there is still a sense of familiarity enough to merit a sharp intake of breath when the news breaks of their sudden passing. Relief, because Houston’s long and slow decline into drug abuse, erratic behavior and personal raggedness was a deep and dark reflection of the incredible success that preceded it. By the time Houston died, those who cared to follow her career were finally relieved of the uncomfortable wait for the inevitable.
Houston was found unresponsive in the bathroom of her Beverly Hills hotel room on the eve of the 2012 Grammy awards, and at the time of this writing, it remains unclear exactly how she died. The likeliest explanation is that she succumbed to a mixture of alcohol and the anxiety drug Xanax, but a definitive answer will not emerge for some time. The coroner’s report is on security hold – meaning no further details of it will be released – until Houston’s toxicology report. Exactly how Houston died is somewhat irrelevant, however, as she had been on a long and steady decline for the better part of 20 years, leading many to believe that one day, she would meet a fate such as this. A long history of drug and alcohol abuse, a tumultuous marriage with another troubled artist (Bobby Brown) and erratic behavior all were the hallmarks of what has befallen so many other great artists: a rise to fame matched only by a collapse so dramatic it is like watching a red giant turn into a black hole.
Even now, to say that Houston was great seems like an understatement. A mezzo-soprano with perfect pitch and effortless skill, she rewrote the record books with a career that from the mid-1980s to mid-1990s was one of the defining parameters of pop music itself. She is one of the best-selling female vocal artists of all time, having sold more than 200 million albums and singles worldwide, with 55 million of them in the United States alone. And this, off a recording history that only spanned seven albums. She won a total of 415 music awards, including two Emmys, six Grammys, 22 American Music awards and 30 Billboard Music awards. She was a huge breakthrough star crossing over from gospel and R&B into mainstream pop appeal, and she broke through barriers aplenty for both female artists and for African-American artists. She is widely regarded by various music media outlets, including MTV, VH1, Rolling Stone, Billboard and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one of the most important and influential female artists in pop history. Her stirring rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Super Bowl XVI in 1991, days after Operation Desert Storm had begun, has been held as a high-water mark for live performances in general, and of the National Anthem in particular.
But the eight-year span between her third and fourth albums was the first warning sign of a life gone awry, and by 2009, Houston’s drug abuse had destroyed her voice and left her unable to perform as she once had done. A comeback tour was shot through with uneven performances and excoriating reviews, confirming what the world had long known in its gut: that Houston had thrown it all away.
In physics, the reason why a space craft cannot reach light speed is because the faster it travels, the more energy it needs to accelerate. The same can be said for fame; the desire for greatness, once achieved, must be met with a desire to remain great. For most, that is simply too heavy a burden to bear forever, which is why so many famous people quietly and eventually sink back into normality. It is why others use their fame to seek it in other venues, which might explain why every rock star wants to be a movie star and vice versa. And it also explains why a tragic few, once they have hit their pinnacle, choose self-destruction. We are not really meant to be famous. We are meant to be ourselves. And we can almost never be both at the same time.