A pop music superstar whose fame was once nearly as big as her once-in-a-generation voice, Whitney Houston died today at the age of 48. Police are investigating the cause of death, though there are no obvious signs of criminal intent. Houston died in a Beverly Hills hotel room, where she was staying while in town to perform at a musical tribute for her mentor, music executive Clive Davis, which still went on as scheduled this evening. Also moving forward is tomorrow’s Grammy telecast, a show Houston once owned and once again will overshadow, only this time for horribly shocking reasons.
Even with Houston’s successful comeback release, 2009’s I Look To You (which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard albums chart with sales of 305,000 copies, her best opening-week tally ever), and the planned remake of 1976’s Sparkle she was to star in with Jordin Sparks and Mike Epps, the dark clouds that hung over the back-half of her career never parted completely. Just last month, it was reported that Houston was broke, and financially supported by her record label as she worked on a new album.
Still, Houston had survived so much—gaining and losing tremendous stardom, a troubled (to put it lightly) marriage to Bobby Brown that later became fodder for a bottom-feeding reality show, and countless public humiliations that somehow never prevented people from inviting her to sing at the next award show or music-industry party—that her death at a still-young age can hardly be seen as predictable. Houston had been such a huge star, and her talents as a vocalist still seemed so singular and titanic, that a triumphant return to her former vaunted status always seemed right around the corner. Sadly, that’s all over now.
Houston will inevitably be compared with Amy Winehouse, another prodigiously talented singer whose history with drug abuse first made her a tabloid punchline in the later years of her life, and then a martyr after her untimely demise. But Winehouse’s career lasted only a few years; Houston in her prime was the most popular female pop singer who ever lived. Statistics tell part of the story: More than 55 million albums sold in the U.S. alone (and more than 100 million more around the world), a record seven consecutive No. 1 singles, and one of the biggest selling songs ever, the lung-busting tear-jerker “I Will Always Love You,” from the mega-selling soundtrack to The Bodyguard. But Houston’s reach can be most plainly heard in the voices of aspiring singers all over the globe. Whether it’s on American Idol or The Voice, or the karaoke night at your neighborhood bar, there are tens of millions people (consciously or not) actively trying to be Whitney Houston. Her loss leaves an Elvis Presley or Michael Jackson-sized hole in popular music.
As much as this can be said about any celebrity, everybody seemed to love Whitney Houston at one time. Even Osama Bin Laden put aside his seething hatred of Western culture for Whitney, obsessing about the day when he might finally meet her. The cover of her 1985 self-titled debut helps to explain why: The 21-year-old Houston is so exotically beautiful that she hardly seems real; the same could be said of her voice, a stunning multi-octave instrument that she wielded like a virtuoso. Just as Eddie Van Halen influenced a generation of guitarists to play faster and flashier then previously seemed humanly possible, Houston inspired legions of pop singers to try and match the awe-inspiring vocal pyrotechnics that gracefully leapt out her larynx.
But like that young woman on the Whitney Houston album cover, the voice was untouchable, even as it seduced millions of listeners. While some singers (most notably Mariah Carey) could match Houston’s notes, nobody could ever quite approach the quality of her tone or the purity of its expression.
Whitney Houston spawned three No. 1 singles (“Saving All My Love For You,” “How Will I Know,” and “Greatest Love Of All”) and stayed at the top of the charts for 14 weeks. As much as the hits from Whitney Houston seem like the epitome of ’80s pop cotton-candy genetically engineered to guarantee Houston’s success, the singer’s rise was actually several years in the making. Houston spent her teens touring clubs with her mother, gospel singer Cissy Houston, who guided her daughter’s burgeoning talent via personal lessons and connections with other popular singers, including her cousin Dionne Warwick and Whitney’s godmother, Aretha Franklin. After Whitney sang back-up on Chaka Khan’s 1978 hit “I’m Every Woman” at the age of 15, she got her first offers to make an album. But Cissy insisted she finish school first, so Whitney instead pursued a modeling career and studio work with various R&B and jazz producers, including Bill Laswell. In 1982, she sang the lead vocal on “Memories” by Laswell’s group Material. The following year, Davis “discovered” Houston in a New York City nightclub, and spent the next two years prepping her for stardom and looking for the right material to break her to a wide audience.
After Whitney Houston became an international smash, Houston embarked on the most successful period of her career. 1987’s Whitney was another hit machine, turning out “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” “Didn’t We Almost Have It All,” and “Where Do Broken Hearts Go.” Houston’s early run of hits established a persona that was enormously appealing to a mass audience, though some found her carefully managed good-girl image cold and alienating. This dichotomy can been seen most clearly with the ballad “Greatest Love Of All”: Fans saw the song as an expression of positivity and humanism, while detractors bemoaned that the horrific self-absorption of the lyrics (which tell us that the greatest love of all is, conveniently, self-love) typified the absolute worst aspects of ’80s yuppie-dom.
But even people who couldn’t stand Houston’s ubiquitous hits or lack of edge could not deny the most inescapable song of her career. The year after performing what’s still the most celebrated rendition of The Star Spangled Banner in recent memory at Super Bowl XXV, Houston appeared in the box office hit The Bodyguard, but more importantly headlined the massively successful soundtrack, which sold millions on the strength of her cover of Dolly Parton’s all-time great love song, “I Will Always Love You.” As good as Parton’s original version is, Houston wrested “I Will Always Love You” from Parton’s capable hands and made it her signature song, boldly opening the track with 45 seconds of unaccompanied singing. “I Will Always Love You” has since became a wedding-song cliché, and therefore inspires massive eye-rolls among those overly impressed by their own cleverness and cynicism. But if you’re honest about the squishiest, truest parts of your own heart, the climactic final 90 seconds of “I Will Always Love You”—the part where Houston holds every note of every syllable until every single person in the room is bawling—own you. Even psychotic America-hating terrorists are powerless against it.
After that, music was put on the back burner for Houston. She married Bobby Brown in 1992, and contrary to popular belief this didn’t completely derail her personal life, at least not immediately. For much of the ’90s, Houston focused on movies, starring in Waiting To Exhale and The Preacher’s Wife, and producing and starring in the made-for-TV film Cinderella, which drew an astounding 60 million viewers. But by 2000, the first cracks in Houston’s polished and highly lucrative façade started to appear. She looked thin and unhealthy in public appearances, and started missing concerts and showing up several hours late to interviews and photo shoots. Before that year’s Academy Awards, she was fired from the show due to being stand-offish with producers over her shaky, ill-prepared vocals for a planned performance of “Over The Rainbow.”
In 2001, she signed a massive $100 million record contract, the biggest deal in history at the time, but Houston at this point had slid past her peak and appeared headed downward. One of her lowest points came during a 2002 interview with Diane Sawyer, when a jittery-looking Houston denied smoking crack (“Crack is wack”) in a pained, scratchy rasp. At one point Sawyer asks Houston what’s the biggest devil haunting her. “That would be me,” Houston says, with an awful, sickening smile. We'll find out how right she was in the days ahead.