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.
The trouble for the public with Houston's drug addiction and all that occasioned it was that the thing that made her special—the beauty that seemed to run deep, that seemed to bespeak a genuine sweetness and innocence—turned into a crackhead ugly knowingness. Yes, it ruined her voice, but the real problem was that it ruined her.
Which is what drugs do.
When I was in the rehabilitative treatment center—what the AA Big Book calls the hopper and what's commonly known as rehab—the statistic that was thrown around was that one in 35 addicts will get and stay clean and sober. Since I haven't used for nearly 14 years, I shudder thinking about the other 34 people. But I've always been told that if you are careful and can get a consistent supply of heroin, like many old blues musicians, you can live to be a very old junkie. Alcohol is mean and ugly and leads to a lot of sleeping at the wheel, but with an accommodating family and an enabler or two, people find all kinds of ways to booze around for a lifetime of drunken hijinks and lowliness. Cocaine is too exhausting, so you either quit altogether or switch to something quieter. And, of course, there are the vast majority of drug addicts who in one way or another—in car accidents or not-accidents, by accidental and non-accidental overdose, or simply because they live badly—are killed by addiction. Often it's later rather than sooner. Houston is not weird at all.