The Strange Lessons of Whitney Houston's Addiction

Drugs turned a superstar into a joke. Only in death did she become a superstar again.

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Weird. I added that single-word sentence to a text I sent alerting someone about Whitney Houston's death Saturday night. I'm not sure why I thought it was weird. Drug addicts die for any reason or no reason at all, fairly frequently. And after Miss Houston had spoken of herself in the royal first-plural to Diane Sawyer in 2002—"We don't do crack"—and made it clear that she was either still using or just loony, it should have been plain that she was too far gone to ever be normal again. And still, her death was weird. Coming so many years after the height of her spectacle of crazy, Whitney Houston's demise felt like a weird afterthought to all the other weird.

Obituaries have referred to Houston as a "cautionary tale." For Jennifer Hudson or Beyoncé maybe—though Jay-Z is nothing like Bobby B. But are the rest of us in any position to profit from Houston's example? It's not like her life or lifestyle represents anything like what even most drug abusers experience: fortune and fame amplify everything. (I know the Twelve Step cant insists that all addicts are the same, but back in reality, that just isn't so.)

Think of Whitney in the moments before she died, having no idea she would be remembered so gloriously. Kind words about her have hardly been spoken publicly in years.

There is something both lopsided and inevitable in that the media and the entertainment industry that has been (understandably) ridiculing Houston's behavior for at least a decade—with an extra bright gold star to Maya Rudolph and Saturday Night Live—is now mourning her unapologetically. In fact, they are mourning her competitively, everyone trying to out-sad the commentator in the next swivel chair. But what else can anyone do? Mourn her ironically? Or not at all? Laugh at Being Bobby Brown and the fact that she forgot to pay the bill on her storage space for so long that finally the contents were auctioned off? Addicts are simultaneously tragic and hilarious. That's just how it is.

As the high-octave Mariah Carey and the high-drama Adele prove, big female voices, while relatively rare, do in fact come along every few years in the recording industry. We even ooh and aah over Christina Aguilera's ability to hit the notes. I have lost count of the number in my lifetime of young and pretty singers that have been excessively and insanely described as operatically trained or as if they were coloratura sopranos. Yes, Houston's gospel-choir background gave style and soul to The Voice. But Houston was unique for another reason: Her singing was brilliantly adult, but her mien was so young and just so lovely. She was a Seventeen cover girl—and it mattered that it wasn't Vogue, that she was dewy instead of drop-dead gorgeous, that she was beautiful in a pretty way that made you love her more. Houston's guileless perfection wasn't just part of her image; it was the whole thing. She was an American sweetheart, perfect for the "Star Spangled Banner," and it's true, no one has ever done it better.

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