Where Do Broken Hearts Go?
Whitney Houston’s death was devastating, but the truth is that we had already lost her long ago.
I cried after Whitney Houston died—quietly and privately, after I had already left the room where I was sitting with friends, speculating about the circumstances surrounding her death—but still, I cried. I was embarrassed for responding as emotionally as I did, for, of course, I did not know Whitney Houston personally. In my years as a music writer, I’d never been in Houston’s orbit, just admired her music from afar, danced to it at parties, sung along in the car. And also, I was ashamed to remember how I had mocked Houston for her frazzled public appearances, erratic behavior, and the commercial failure of her most recent album, which saw her voice croaky and enervated by the years of drug abuse and hard living. The effortless melisma, the spine-tingling power that her voice had once shown was gone, and the transparency of her decline made her an easy target. Compassion can be inconvenient, especially in the snark-happy realm of the media, and even though I myself was sober after battling the same stimulant abuse that destroyed Houston, it was easy for me to be cavalier about the new Whitney. Crackhead Whitney. The Whitney who bore so little resemblance to the vibrant, ebullient performer who became, on the strength of what was almost universally regarded as the best voice in popular music, an iconic superstar.
There could be no one who loves music, who cares about music, who was not influenced by Houston’s work. Her influence on the world of popular music is inestimable. Still, my knowledge of her back catalogue was limited to her biggest hits, the songs that get routinely butchered by overeager contestants on American Idol-type talent shows—actually, the album with which I was most familiar was her most recent, 2009’s much-anticipated comeback album, I Look to You. The album received a mixed reception from critics and audiences, and though it hit #1 on the charts (probably due largely to the press blitz leading up to its release), its singles underperformed. I Look to You is an uneven record that veers wildly from thunderous disco stompers to middle-of-the-road R&B to saccharine ballads, and it feels—as so many “comeback” LPs do—inconsistent and pandering. Those ballads were so triumphant, so certain of their own redemptive power even as they circumvented naming the actual struggle at hand, and especially when paired with the celebratory mirth of the uptempo tracks, it didn’t ring true. Houston walked through the hellish domain of crack cocaine addiction into sobriety—assuming that she was ever truly sober; despite her notorious “crack is wack” diatribe, she later admitted publicly that she always preferred rock cocaine; a friend who worked at a luxury hotel in New York once told me that when Houston was a guest there, she called down to room service and ordered a box of baking soda.
Any addict knows that death lurks around every corner, and the tablet of Xanax that reportedly took Whitney’s last breath had as much to do with her death as did the first hit of sweetly acrid white cocaine smoke.
And crack addiction certainly isn’t a journey that can be neatly packaged into a four minute ballad about self-empowerment; addiction is so much messier than that, so much more genuinely painful and joyful and complex, marked by moments of wrenching emptiness and, if we are fortunate, incredible transcendence. The closest I Look to You ever came to transcendence was the eight-minute Freemasons dance remix of her single “Million Dollar Bill,” which recreated that song’s creaky pop as euphoric electrofunk. Turned up to a deafening volume on a crowded dancefloor, it’s about as good an approximation of a cocaine high as I’ve found in sobriety.
So my emotional response to Houston’s death, I think, had less to do with my personal investment in her music and more to do with something more universal, and also less so—the experience of watching another addict succumb to the disease. This is something that I struggle with articulating, not because it’s that complicated—it’s fairly straightforward, I think—but because there’s something smug and separatist about the idea that I, as a stranger, could be more deeply impacted by Houston’s death than any other stranger, like any person who claims, selfishly, that any tragedy hurts them in a special and distinct way. But it is also true that, as a recovering addict, I never want to see another addict sick from their addiction, as Houston clearly was for so long, and when they are bested by the disease of addiction, it hits in a strange and painful place. Maybe it reminds me of my own mortality, the fragility of my recovery and how truly dangerous it is to be an active addict. But also, part of it is a sense of weighty injustice, the fact that an artist with such an abundance of talent should be unable to beat her demons while the world of popular music is ruled by artists with no discernible vocal talent, charisma, or originality—and worse still, that Houston was beaten down by a condition that is publicly humiliating. Needless to say, if Houston had suffered from a different terminal illness, she would never be ridiculed for showing symptoms, for remissions or relapses.
Yet addiction is the disease that remains fair game for the public to parody and mock. Certainly I have laughed, in the days since Houston’s death, watching Maya Rudolph’s inspired impression of Whitney Houston on Saturday Night Live, in which Houston is reduced to a series of physical tics, yelps, and gesticulations, unintelligible and hyperactive in that peculiar scrambled way that career crack addicts become. But my laughter is tempered by a feeling of wary concern that this will be Houston’s legacy, not the remarkable body of work that she leaves behind.
In the weeks to come, there will be continued speculation as to Houston’s cause of death (there already has been, in a tabloid frenzy that has been predictably gratuitous, yet never fails to be shocking in its crassness); this is an arbitrary, combative line of questioning, especially if_as with the recent scapegoating surrounding Conrad Murray and Artie Klein’s respective complicities in Michael Jackson’s death—there is an effort to hold a medical professional accountable. (I hope this is not the case.) Without having any empirical evidence, I can say with absolute certitude that Houston’s cause of death was not drowning nor “accidental overdose” but simply being an addict, year after year. Nervous systems get frayed; vital organs begin to break down. If her voice, which was once the voice, the instrument by which all other artists’ vocal talents were measured, had been corroded to the charred rasp that it is during her final performance at Tru Hollywood two days before her death, it is impossible that her health could have been in much better condition. Any addict knows that death lurks around every corner, and the tablet of Xanax that reportedly took Whitney’s last breath had as much to do with her death as did the first hit of sweetly acrid white cocaine smoke, the endless glasses of white wine, and the Xanax before the last one. Or the next Xanax, the one she never got to take.
Whitney Houston’s talent was her gift, and also her cross to bear. During Houston’s “comeback” in 2009, Oprah suggested that Houston’s decline was met with “disgust” by the public because they perceived it as a betrayal; the fact that she would squander her talent taking drugs, chain-smoking, and neglecting her health (to speak nothing of the incredible instrument thrumming in her chest) was a loss not only for Houston herself, her friends and family, but for the public. To waste a gift so extraordinary, Oprah suggested, was genuinely injurious to a public who had grown up on her music.
I don’t think Houston quite understood this point, although she nodded in placid agreement, but then, that is why she was an addict. So many of us, in the throes of addiction and even later, with our feet planted firmly in recovery, have an exceptionally myopic view of our own behavior; it is unfathomable that our mistakes could have consequences on a larger scale than the personal, even as our worlds crash down around us. And though there is a permanence to Houston’s death, I suspect that we had already lost her long ago. The light had faded from her eyes; the talent, at least in its richest, most chillingly powerful intensity, had faded from her body. For me, the right way to honor her passing is not to project an impossible saintliness onto her, but to remember her as she was: A legend with awe-inspiring talent who was deeply flawed, who traded her incredible gift for quick, cheap pleasures. This does not make her any less deserving of respect as we remember her talent and her legacy.
It just makes her human.