MSN Music Blog - Reverb

R.I.P. Whitney Houston

Troubled superstar found dead at 48, details emerging

By percy thrillington Feb 12, 2012 6:23PM

The shocking news of Whitney Houston’s untimely at the age of 48 continues to send shockwaves across the globe. She was reportedly found in the bathtub of her suite at the Beverly Hilton Hotel last night; she was apparently planning to attend a pre-Grammy party thrown by her former label chief Clive Davis. Autopsy results have not yet been released, but speculation that she died from a combination of prescription drugs (including Xanax) and alcohol has been rampant, most notably from internet gossip site, which published an account from anonymous witnesses (“people close to Whitney”) describing a scene in which Houston’s bodyguard pulled her body from the tub and attempted CPR to no avail. Beverly Hills Police Dept. spokesman Lt. Mark Rosen told the NY Times “there were no obvious signs of foul play” but added that “the reality is she was too far too young to die and any time you have the death of someone this age it is the subject of an investigation.”  


An outpouring of tributes from fans and admirers followed the news of Houston’s death—focusing on memories of her glory years as a pop phenomenon, before the more sordid elements of her celebrity (drug use, a troubled marriage to fellow singer Bobby Brown) began to overshadow her mighty talent. Two of the most memorable, from critics Ann Powers (NPR) and Sasha Frere-Jones (The New Yorker) follow below:


Whitney Houston: Her Life Played Out Like An Opera
Posted by Ann Powers

It played out like an opera, her life. Whitney Houston was born during the golden, brutal days of the civil rights movement, into a family of royal women. Her mother, Cissy Houston, raised the house in gospel circles and backed up many a hitmaker; her cousin, Dionne Warwick, pioneered the crossover sound Whitney would later take even higher. Her godmother, Aretha Franklin, is soul's Queen. She was born blessed. And she grew up wise, in the nightclubs where her mama sang, like some kind of New Jersey Carmen: love is a gypsy's child; it has never known a law.
At 21 she became a racehorse. After a few early experiments, including apprenticeships in modeling and harmonizing with her spiritual elder sister, Chaka Khan, Houston met Clive Davis, the record man who would be her lifelong mentor. Davis signed her to Arista Records, in 1985 her debut came out and, after a slow start, three hit singles granted Houston the superstardom that would define her for the rest of her life, even after her daily circumstances had changed so much.
I was a kid working at Tower Records in San Francisco when Whitney Houston hit. What I remember is the life-sized cut out photograph that we propped up next to the stacks of her album, which kept getting depleted and restocked. In the picture she wore a swimsuit; her body was sleek and shiny, her perfection a haughty challenge to raggedy New Wave girls like me. I can't say I loved her then. She represented '80s culture at its glitziest and most carnivorous — she was the perfect, impossibly expansive voice of the yuppie soul, feeding on stock options and caviar.
Later, when I got deeper into contemporary urban music, I could hear how her singing made soul music's church into a crystal cathedral. Her tone and her power put her in a class nearly by herself. And unlike other glamor queens of that era, Houston also cultivated a certain wry warmth, the laugh that burst out of her gorgeous mouth and let us know that she would always come down from the throne, kick off her spiked heels and dance with us.
She found even more fame in the '90s, becoming a movie star and claiming Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You" as a signature that came to mark every surface of the culture. Then she started to fall. Houston's marriage to Bobby Brown was a slow motion car wreck, marred by drug use and public squabbles, though blessed by a daughter whom she clearly adored. The slobbering attentions of the tabloid journalists made things worse, as did every snicker each of us indulged about her sadness.
Still, Houston made one of her finest albums during this period — My Love Is Your Love, which showcased a grittier voice and, on songs like "It's Not Right But It's Okay," a determination to mine hard times for meaning, the way she'd once milked the glory of her youth.
In this century, Houston became an emblem of decline — of the human toll taken by drugs, and of the shifting nature of pop, whose stars now act much more like trick ponies than thoroughbreds. Houston made more music and won more accolades (according to the Guinness Book of World Records, she holds more trophies than any other pop star) and did manage to occasionally appear in public. But her comeback never solidified. The most obvious testimony to the greatness of her gift is that, even when she was most down, the butt of comedians' jokes and gossip columnists sneers, her fellow artists only spoke of her in admiration and love.
Her artistic father figure, Clive Davis, never gave up hope that she would return. Every year at the party he threw in the Beverly Hilton Hotel — where she died Saturday afternoon, hours before she was scheduled to appear — Davis held out hope that this would be the time Houston would regain her breath and her fire and finally win again. She did make a go of it in 2009, wearing leopard skin and smiling widely as she sang with her cousin Dionne. It wasn't miraculous, but it was good enough to move the room to cheers and tears.
That Houston died mere steps from that stage, only to be discovered by her bodyguard in one of the thousand hotel rooms where she'd laid her head, is strange poetry. I've long thought that someone should write an opera about this brash, brilliant woman, born a child of soul and raised to womanhood within the heart of crossover pop. She broke hearts, and was herself broken. She suffered, but not in her music, which even at its saddest was grounded in a sense of dignity and the determination to transcend. She defined a style that so many would adopt, yet her talent was unique.
At the beginning of her book Opera, Or the Undoing Of Women, the French theorist Catherine Clement turns to various arias to embellish her argument about how music symbolizes and enacts the pain women must endure. "A prima donna is a column broken in two that bleeds from top to bottom," sings the diva in Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann. This reprisal reveals what we listeners crave: gorgeous suffering, self-exposure a show of power. Clement quotes another aria, from Jean Cocteau's text for Cantate, that makes me think of Whitney Houston, as I hope to always think of her. As an aerialist: "See see how I can fly / I can stay up alone / Detach myself from earth / Spin and rise / Rise wingless, wingless / Climb into the air the way you fall / Gently / In a whirl."
Posted by Sasha Frere-Jones
With the weird blend of investment and helplessness that typifies kin, we’ve watched Whitney Houston die in front of us, slowly and unmistakably, for more than a decade. Now that she is dead at the age of forty-eight, found at the Beverly Hilton, we face a new and weirder blend: the grief you feel for someone you didn’t really know but are unable to pretend you weren’t tied to, and the awkward truth that they’ve met the end you expected. Do we shrug, and walk away, humbled by the brutality of the body’s chemistry? Do we wag our fingers even harder at our kids, as if we can somehow scare their brains into being 2.0 brains? Considering how many times Houston confronted her own addiction in public, her end confirms that the pull of addiction can be stronger than the pull of dignity.
Houston was one of the few artists to work in the same field as Michael Jackson, a place where several decades of African-American music were synthesized into a new kind of pop. Both artists were repeatedly accused of abandoning some version of their own roots, whether it was gospel, blues, soul, or R&B. That kind of reductive critique ignored how both Jackson and Houston were talents that had to sprawl, that were naturally destined to complicate and stymie genres.
Houston’s bona fides were almost laughably promising: her mother was the gospel singer Cissy Houston, her cousin was Dionne Warwick, and she was the goddaughter of Aretha Franklin. It may be reductive or even dull, but maybe what Houston really did was waltz into the world and combine her family’s work. Her voice was big enough to fill a mall, and her taste was varied enough to allow her entry into the pop world to actually be a kind of stealth victory. The first songs she released, “You Give Good Love” and “Saving All My Love For You,” made it look like she was aiming to take on the R&B ballad field. But one of the two dance numbers on her début, “How Will I Know,” was a big enough hit to allow her the room to shift.
Her second album, “Whitney,” laid out the rough scheme she followed for the rest of her career: ballads as the crossword puzzles she would complete minutes before you, and dance numbers as her firing range. Michael Jackson represented the ecstatic and the untouchable; Whitney Houston was always human, along every axis. Her triumphs felt like things you could imagine, just barely. The peak of “Whitney” was “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” which forms a perfect companion to Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” his expression of loss of self within the joy of dance. Houston’s spirit never made her seem distant, so it was plausible (the pliable listener wanted to believe) that she might dance with us, though by the time she got to the chorus she might easily be anywhere, with anyone. Her voice was good to vowels, and this time around it was “o” that won the lottery.
Her biggest hit gave the stage to “I,” a first person that is so easily recognized that if you even mumble “and I” with some kind of melody, whoever’s standing there will assume it’s “I Will Always Love You.” Originally written and recorded by Dolly Parton, “I Will Always Love You” was momentarily ceded to Linda Ronstadt, but Houston owns it now. The song broke through a dozen different ceilings because of the first person chorus, but just start with the first forty-five seconds, which is Houston singing without any accompaniment. She states the first verse, moving carefully through her own filters, not even hinting at how bright the lights can get. The second verse casually drops in some heavier flashes and then the second chorus comes out as if Houston is no longer any kind of regretful—she is using her magnanimous nature to flatten whoever’s chosen someone over her.
The ballads in Houston’s catalog reveal the most about her, like “I Have Nothing,” which is ostensibly a ballad in the way many of her ballads are. Houston begins in a mode that seems cowed, maybe sad or wearied, and then the voice takes over and she becomes entirely invincible, at odds with any lyric that hints at weakness. Watching her decline, in public, was especially hard because she was someone who had so little use for musical fragility or any songs that trucked in self-pity. Her biggest late period hit was possibly her hardest, thematically. Houston tended towards the uplifting, as a song picker, but by 1998, Houston’s troubled marriage to Bobby Brown and substance problems had come into view. So “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay,” which exonerates an unfaithful lover, was about as close as Houston would come to claiming she’d accept a loss.
Was this a form of magical thinking, then, this pose of invincibility? Her last album, “I Look To You,” avoids expressions of power, implicitly acknowledging that there are forces that might just prevent her immortality. She settles for being cheerful, and “Million Dollar Bill” served as a reasonably fun piece of retro disco. But her voice is heard multi-tracked over and over—we rarely hear the instrument all by itself, doing what only it could do, breaking the sung note into infinitely small and mobile units. No, by the end, she’s mostly comforting herself, as if she knew what was coming.


Feb 13, 2012 5:00AM
@GOLDIES61...your statement about the queen of pop is stupid yes dolly might have song it first but dolly...isn't in the same league when it comes to whitney..she is the true diva who's voice and singing to this day is still untouchable! have a little respect.... or is it because she was black who out did a white on her on song and made millions on it!.
Feb 12, 2012 11:27PM
With an aching heart I listen to Whitney with awe, honor and respect. RIP from this good earth. Now sing your purest note. Let your spirit continue to grace your daughter with love for all the days of her life; temperance and will to live many decades past your departure. Lift her despair and ease her pain as only a Mother can.
Feb 12, 2012 10:10PM
The world has lost a true diva/pop queen!I am 47 and so very proud that I grew up with the best singers in the history of music!  The king of pop and the queen of pop" Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston"!No one will ever touch there  record breaking albem sales! or there stills on the stage!GOD THANK YOU !My prays go out to Whitneys girl Bobbie and all the family ! RIP
Feb 13, 2012 2:03PM
How the 2 stories are beautifully written - not playing but acknowledging her problems - always hoped she would find her way back to us and now we will never know.  However my prayers go out to her family most especially her daughter and pray her life will save someone elses - God Bless the Lady for she was all that.
Feb 13, 2012 10:39AM

There is word to used to describe Whitney Houston  she an artist in her on class.  She touches everybody soul with her music.  We thank god for sharing her with us. R.I.P much love for you

Feb 13, 2012 9:00AM
Rest in Jesus Whitney. I hope that everyone who has not bought or listened to Her album " I Look To You" would. This album to me represents Whitney's acknowledgement of her Savior, and his redeeming power in her life. Each song where she speaks of her struggle and surrender is soo touching to me and brings tears to my eyes, for I too have struggled as she did. I was blessed  by receiving that deliverance that Christ had given me and overcame my addiction. Whitney it's alright now, God in his mercy would not allow you to struggle any longer, you ran your race and will receive your reward from the only just judge, our father.
Feb 13, 2012 7:53AM

Short of maybe Aretha Franklin...This GREAT, GREAT Woman WAS Nothing Short Of The ABSOLUTE~BEST...BOTH Of These Women Have-And DID Have-What Extremely FEW Do Have, Where TRUE Singing And Performing IS Concerned.......


Sure-one Can LEARN to Sing...And though Some may turn out to be Darn GOOD, through the help of others and the Learning Process of such...NOBODY Can Possibly Come REMOTELY CLOSE To Those Whom It's Come NATURALLY-To...These People Were BORN To Their God-Given~GIFT...It's NOT 'Just A Part Of Their LIFE~IT IS~A PART-OF-THEM...Right From The Very Moment They Are BORN.......

These Two Women WERE Born To SING...BOTH Of These Women Have ALWAYS Been A NATURAL At Their God-Given~GIFT.......






Because...We Love You Too, Whitney~Always Have...

And Thank-You From Our Hearts For Sharing YOUR Golden Voice, Remarkable Class-(despite Everything)-AND-Love For Us~Your Fans.......


May God Hold You In The Palm Of His Hand and The Angels Welcome You Into Heaven's Choir.......Be Happy And KNOW How You WERE Loved.......


And May God Hold Your Family And Friends In His Heart-Now And Always....


You ARE Loved.......


~Angelpony 0:)...

Feb 13, 2012 7:13AM
RIP Whitney... My prayers are with the family. What a great Talent!
Feb 13, 2012 7:10AM

Some of you people are so mean... Have a heart. Thank God your mistakes are not on display for so others can say so much about you. #SelfRighteous


Feb 13, 2012 12:53PM

We have to stop glamorizing drugs, and quite frankly it all starts with pot.  The only people who make out are are the dealers, and those so-called friends who will do anything for celebrity access and get paid to be that friend".  Reports are coming out that she was fine and others say she was basically a mess.  Well, you can't be both, so guess which ones are the mooches and hanger-ons.

Feb 13, 2012 7:03AM
avatar did a brillant performance of I Will Always Love You.  I'm sure Whitney was looking down at you with pride that you did "her" song so well. You brought tears to the eyes of so many.   You do have such a terrific pair of pipes on ya.  Thank you for your great performance.
Feb 12, 2012 11:33PM
Jennifer hudson was a HORRIBLE choice for a whitney tribute who is in charge of making these decisions they should be fired
Feb 13, 2012 10:34AM

The news of Whitney's death was very sad indeed.  She had undeniably incredible, incredible voice, beauty (inside and out) and she had her faith.  Sadly, somewhere along the way, this was lost.  Addiction is a terrible thing and robs all of us, whether it is a celebrity that you admire or closer to home, someone in your family or circle of friends.  The truth is, we lost the Whitney that we all recognized and admired a long time ago and this is one of biggest parts of the tragedy. 


For those who are posting negative and very, very nasty comments...your day of judgment will come too.  To make a comment that you're glad someone died is insane and sadly, you are in need of some intensive therapy.  The comments from others who say they didn't even know who she was, but had terrible, horrid comments, how sad.  Sad in the fact that you must be very, very young not to know who she is and sad that your parents aren't monitoring the things you post and the fact that they have yet to recognize that you have such coldness and hatred in your heart at such a young age.


Prayers go out for her family, especially her daughter, and friends.  In heartfelt hope that she is now in the loving embrace of God's arms.......the Devil had her long enough.  Rest in Peace, Whitney, you are missed.

Feb 13, 2012 12:59AM
Although she was a good vocalist the song "I Will Always Love You" is NOT hers. It belongs to Dolly Parton who sang it without screeching and with true feelings. Why do people idolize druggies and pedophiles?
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