I have a wonderful memory of a young Whitney Houston in a black trousers suit and a white shirt, fresh and lovely with a terrific voice, singing “I Wanna Dance with Somebody”. Last night with nothing to watch to my taste or not being rerun for the 114th time, I watched a documentary on her career and fall, subtitled “Can I be Me ?” Congratulations to the film maker Nick Broomfield, I haven’t slept a wink.
Though the second time I saw Whitney, she was what I call “gussied up” – dyed hair, tight clothes – I thought – if I thought – that they – the ubiquitous “they” – were trying out different “looks”. I should only have known. Why do onlookers so often see meddling hands as benign ?
By the time I first saw her, she had been under contract for a number of years. Weigh those two words – “under contract”. They have the weight of a waterlogged hulk. Whitney may have looked like a Hollywood princess but she grew up in Newark and Orange, New Jersey where it’s all down town. Not a boulevard in sight. So she looked like one thing but was actually quite another.
Her mother, a handsome chilly termagant and the power behind the domestic throne, ruled over one husband and two sons, to whom a pretty girl kid was a pleasant enough addition. Much “molding” took place. It set the scene for the “molding” to follow. Mother had a fine African voice and sense of musicality which had never been acknowledged. She watched her daughter succeed, fulfil and exceed her – leaving her mother behind. The trouble with threatening and disapproving as a method of childrearing control is that a personality becomes inured against it.
The pattern for conflict was already established. Mother was a power in the church, and directed the choir – so the family went to church. But the brothers did what young men do, snuck drugs home and shared them with Whitney. A terrible lesson was learned before it was formulated: it isn’t what you do that counts, it’s how you are seen to be.
When Arista Records got hold of her, a little further down the list from the Big Names already spoken for, they decided to mold (that word again) her into product for the lucrative white pop market – she would be a black for whites. The A&R man said “Anything too black was just quietly put aside, they knew what they were doing.” She was booed as not black enough at the Soul Train awards and it hurt her very much.
The relentlessness of such a life was well captured because it is what I call “the dream machine”. You must always look great, innovative if possible, making unending effort with your hair, eyes, hands, jewellery, shoes, companions, in the maintenance of something that starts out as a mouse you might pet but winds up as a monster that eats you. Whitney married a younger “naughty boy” who at least came from a background similar to hers but caught in the forgiving trap, she never made sense of either of them in the relationship she clung to. She had a little girl. Oh how I hate to see people trot their children out on stage !
And where was she in all this ? Working, singing, preparing, touring, exhausted, performing, while the drugs that had been light relief became a secret sustenance for all sorts of reasons, mostly the classic – freedom from pain for a while. And, bodies everywhere like beetles, the juggernaut of guards and go-fors, back up singers and all sorts of people she knew who now had titles – her father as manager, her old schoolfriend as scenic designer – were all paid by her so she must earn the money. They could only reach her for the moment they did. Nothing lasted.
I knew why I was watching this film. This is supposed to be “success”, the acme of achievement and the answer to everything – even if the price is life. It was harshly moral, this film. It said in sum “if you don’t choose, the gods choose for you.” They chose Whitney, she chose Paradise Road – and it is nothing to do with heaven.