In 1985, Whitney Houston made her MTV-ready debut, the latest product spit-shined to perfection by legendary hitmaker Clive Davis. Back then, it was hard to match the glamour quotient—and she made for great copy: She was polished, pristine, the scion of entertainment royalty, possessing a squeaky-clean rep and cover-girl looks. Dubbed “The Voice,” her vocals were indeed a thing of wonder, clarion bell clear, hitting stratospheric notes with stunning precision.
The hits and the awards came tumbling in—with over 170 million records sold—making her one of the greatest selling pop acts. Ever. When she sang “I’m Every Woman,” it was hard not to believe her.
Then she went off script.
It’s hard to say which came first, the man or the addiction, but the resulting combination was … disastrous. The glamour girl was replaced with a strung-out looking doppelganger more famous for the drama than the music. It looked as though she was following the script of a different narrative: The doomed diva, soon to go the route of that other Davis protégé—Janis Joplin—done in by too much, too many, too soon, too late.
It was one of the earliest examples of reality show coonery, a raucous precursor to Flavor Flav’s Flavor of Love, Tiny & Toya and The Real Housewives of Atlanta. It was filled with TMI moments, from Bobby’s solution to Whitney’s uh, digestive problems, to Whitney’s frequent exhortations of “Hell to the No!” and “Kiss my ass!”
It was a hot mess.
But watch the video of them in Israel, getting baptized together on a riverbank. The way they clung to each other betrayed a mutual need that was primal, the likes of which you can’t fake for the cameras. Bobby Brown may or may not have been her undoing, but she was clearly a willing participant in her own destruction. As was he with his.
Now Brown’s gone, off making babies with another woman. She is presumably clean, promoting a new CD, I Look to You, released this week. Looking better than she has in many a year: Still beautiful, seemingly grounded, a little wary around the edges.
I could hold on to pain but that ain´t what my life´s about
I ain´t blaming nobody if I ain´t got my stuff worked out
I got love for my self, ain´t gonna regret anything I´ve done
I just wanna sing my song, ain´t got nothin’ but love
—Whitney Houston, “Nothin’ but Love”
The voice is different now, raspy and honeyed, where it once rang clear like crystal. It is, in short, a grown woman’s voice, a grown woman who has, more often than not, found life difficult to endure, but found a way through to the other side nonetheless. Battered and bruised, but back.
How does one engineer a comeback when the last decade of your life has been wrapped in scandal? You’ve got to emerge from the chaos, looking fabulous, older and wiser, and sticking closely to a strict narrative of redemption and recovery. And with I Look To You, Houston is sticking to her lines. “Every road that I’ve taken led to my regrets,” she sings in R. Kelly’s “I Look To You,” “I don’t know if I can make it … My levees have broken … Set me free.” Then there’s “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength,” where she declares, “I crashed down, and I tumbled, but I did not crumble.” You can peer into the abyss, but if you want commercial success, you’ve got to come back obedient and compliant, tail tucked. (And it’s best to shed the excess weight of an unruly husband, too.)
There is, with this do-over narrative, no room for improvisation.
Listening to I Look To You, one is reminded of other, preternaturally talented baby divas, trained show horses primed at an early age for success: Mariah, Michael, Diana, Judy Garland, Lauryn … And somehow, they all end up careering off the rails in dramatic ways, as the pressure of all that divaliciousness became too much to bear.
You wonder, was it the pressure of trying to hold up an artificial image?
Was it the 24-7 glare of the spotlights?
Or perhaps there are some invisible fault lines in the psyche, fault lines that were there all along. And all it took was the right sequence of events to make everything fall down and go boom.
And now, after years of fits and starts and pushed back deadlines, Whitney’s re-entry is as carefully choreographed, as was her original debut. Davis is once again at her side. She’ll do Oprah later this month; and on Wednesday she appeared live on Good Morning America, filling Central Park with a crush of devoted fans. But a bevy of back-up singers—not to mention a backing track of a younger, stronger Whitney—couldn’t hide the fact that The Voice was straining to keep up.
You can’t, observed one blogger, “go back and unsmoke a pipe.”
Perhaps not. But why not acknowledge that the past has indeed passed? That, yes, The Voice may be no more. But now, something newer and deeper has replaced it and is now ready to make different, and perhaps more meaningful, music. One can only hope. And so we do hope: Maybe Whitney will find a way to rewrite her own, happier ending.
Teresa Wiltz is The Root’s senior culture writer.