Whitney Houston’s father called her ‘Nippy’ — a cartoon character with a penchant for mischief. As a toddler, Whitney would keep kicking off her blanket, forcing her hapless dad to keeping covering her again. Her career, too, in many ways, exhibited the same restlessness, as she flitted in and out of a great beginning, stardom, a shot at films, marriage, narcotics, more films, a largely sentimental return to singing with a voice that ached with abuse and disuse to her final dip in a hotel bathtub prior to a night that grants a forgiving window to even spent divas.
Whitney was meant to be lapped up by America — and predictably deboned. A consummate sweetheart, she wasn’t a Bronx wannabe or a ghetto prodigy. Her background reassuringly radiated things generally missing from those of many performing greats — values, familial warmth and oneness with the lord. Her looks ensured she graced the covers of Glamour and Seventeen. Her freshly post-pubertal timbre was striking enough to reach the ears of impresario Clive Davis while she was merely providing back-up vocals to Teddy Pendergrass.
Her 1985 hit, ‘Greatest love of all’, became her anthem and made George Benson a hesitant owner of the song. It became compellingly hers for a reason, one that fuelled her meteoric rise and fattened her Grammy kitty. What made Whitney a novelty was that she came with a sound firmly rooted to her gospel roots. Her voice could afford the playful coloratura and yet boast of gravitas. Small wonder, she wooed the Boston lawyer and wowed the Brooklyn waitress with equal alacrity.
But America asked for more of her. And Whitney, ever willing, gave America more. And more. By 1990, a mere five-odd years since she helped buy mansions for herself and her record label moguls, Whitney’s timbre had done the whole gamut — from tough rhythmic grooves, soulful ballads to dance tracks — in her effort to please, and pander to, her most concerts, she insisted on the kind of show that would befit her gospel upbringing, both in terms of deportment and music, through her delightful glamour, refined stage mannerisms, improvised melodies and always, always unexpected phrasings.
And then she gave America a clutch of feel-good films. While America swallowed her new-found status as an angelic thespian for a while, it was not long before it missed her original avatar as a chart-topping chanteuse. And Whitney obliged again with her album, My Love Is Your Love, which achieved quadruple-platinum status in the US, boasting of no less than five worldwide hits, including a duet, ‘When you believe’ with her acolyte, Mariah Carey.
But the same America became unforgiving and critical soon after. Despite a successful global tour of her latest album, column space and social chatter were increasingly devoted to the chinks in her personal life and her tumultuous marriage to rapper Bobby Brown. But it was her slow but inevitable recourse to drugs, which was shamelessly at odds with her hymns-for-breakfast moorings. The ensuing media picnic over this dependence put Whitney in a corner from which she could only peek out but never completely come out again. A disillusioned Whitney tried to vent her less than happy experiences more subtly through some of the songs, notably ‘Whatchulookinat’. America feted her while she had an unending kitty. It diminished her just as summarily even as she took a breather, perhaps for a refill.
Jayatsen Bhattacharya is a Kolkata-based writer
The views expressed by the author are personal