Monday, January 19, 2015

Behind the Headlines: Whitney Houston (Lifetime, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan

I watched a Lifetime Behind the Headlines special on Whitney Houston, yet another episode in their weird “tribute” to her that included the TV-movie about her, Whitney (so focused on her ill-advised — to say the least — marriage to Bobby Brown one commenter on an message board said it should have been called Bobby), an hour-long tabloid interview with Bobby Brown giving his side of their relationship and the one I would most have wanted to see but didn’t, a one-hour “performance special” I caught a bit of (and which contained a clip of a very young Whitney Houston singing a nondescript song but singing it powerfully in a Broadway-ballad style that didn’t sound at all Black but was still considerably moving). I was hoping last night’s show would be a rerun of that but instead it was a bit of sleazy tabloid story-mongering starting with the factoid that Houston died in the Beverly Hills Hotel on the eve of the big Grammy Awards pre-event party being thrown by Clive Davis, the head of her record company (Arista), and Davis went ahead with the party, ostensibly turning it into a tribute to her, while her body was still in the hotel several floors above. The show gave a thumbnail sketch of her career, and included the interesting revelation that the earliest and last performances of Whitney Houston that exist on video are both of her singing religious songs: a clip of her from the New Hope church in her home town of Newark, New Jersey (where her mom, Cissy Houston, was music director when she wasn’t on tour as a backup singer for Aretha Franklin and Elvis Presley) and a drop-in she did at a nightclub where she joined a much younger male R&B singer in a hymn. (They showed a bit of this and her voice was considerably more ragged than it had been in its prime, though a different sort of artist could have used this to her advantage and presented herself as a hard-bitten woman who had been through a lot and survived it — sort of like the way Billie Holiday and Judy Garland presented themselves during their last years.) There wasn’t much of an attempt to get an insight into What Made Whitney Run — and the rather pat summing-up at the end, talking about how sometimes addiction is more powerful than love or fame, didn’t really answer the question, “Why Whitney Houston?” You might as well ask, “Why Billie Holiday?” “Why Judy Garland?” “Why Dinah Washington?” “Why Amy Winehouse?” (Though in Winehouse’s case she already had a big — and well-known — drug problem before she became a star, and her most famous song was a forthright statement about why she wasn’t going to go to rehab.)

Whitney Houston’s case was complicated by the fact that her carefully built-up image (mostly by Clive Davis, who was pushing her — as Berry Gordy had pushed Diana Ross earlier — for the “Black Barbra Streisand” market niche) didn’t allow for the complexities of real life to intrude: while Billie’s, Dinah’s and Judy’s pain became part and parcel of their work, Whitney was marketed as a performer whose beautiful, pure voice could soar over all that was mean and sordid in life — and the embarrassments of the later years (including her weird appearances on the TV “reality” series Being Bobby Brown, in which we got to see Mr. and Mrs. Brown playfully but edgily confronting each other in their kitchen over breakfast, which probably did as much to de-mythologize Whitney Houston as all the tabloid headlines about her drug use ever did) blew her career in ways that for other kinds of performers (including Bobby Brown himself, with his carefully cultivated “bad boy” image) wouldn’t have hurt and to some extend would actually have helped their myth-making. Whitney Houston’s story is a sad waste of talent, and despite all the churning of her private life in shows like this and tabloid articles both during her lifetime and since her death, we’re really not any closer to an idea of why a singer who seemed to have it all fell so far, so fast, and didn’t have the kind of either personal or career longevity her obvious models, Streisand and Ross, did.