Whitney Houston’s Twin Legacies: Beauty and Pain

Houston famously told Diane Sawyer that she's her own biggest devil. The same can probably be said for most of us, which is why we rely on entertainers to sing both our pain and our glory.

By Jamilah King Feb 13, 2012

Though speculation continues to swirl about exactly how she died, vocal legend and pop diva Whitney Houston’s legacy is, in many ways, already set. She’ll be known to generations of fans and hundreds of young singers as an extraordinarily talented woman with a powerhouse voice–and a cautionary tale about the hazards of fame and the often lonely battle of addiction.

Of course, that’s a biased look. One that feels selfishly unfair to a woman like Houston, who’d spent the better part of three decades changing the sound and the reach of R&B and pop music. Not only was she the most lauded and among the highest selling vocalists of our time, she was an artist whose talent moved seamlessly from the modeling runway to the recording booth and then to the camera.

At least, that’s how I, an ’80s baby, first became familiar with her in the early to mid 1990s, when she starred in "The Bodyguard" and "Waiting to Exhale." In both films, she exuded an almost regal air. I imagined that that was how she was in real life: a calm, confident, reflective black woman.

Of course, the reality was much different. Houston publicly battled addiction for years and often faced intense public scrutiny because of it. I was born the same year that her debut album elevated her to international stardom, and can’t help but think that while her voice was legend, my most vivid recollections of her career are the last dozen or so years Houston spent denying, then admitting and fighting a very public addiction. As Dream Hampton wrote so eloquently at Ebony:

Modern stars are simultaneously coddled and mocked for their addiction. Our collective voyeurism, schadenfreude and hypocritical rush to judgment would suggest that our own families are junkie free. In a country where addiction is criminalized rather than being treated as the national epidemic that it is, we were both too quick to accept Whitney’s post-divorce narrative of recovery and far too willing to gaze upon her many public car wrecks.

…Whitney Houston was a featherweight, grand beauty, a whale of a singer and a fragile, tortured superstar who is finally free of her addiction. Her body of work is an eternal testimony to her dignity, grace and her out-of- this-world ability. Her life, which only those closest to her will ever truly know in full, tells a more complicated story.

Regardless of what the final verdict is on what killed Houston, it’s important to focus on her very public battle with the desease of addiction. While I can’t pretend to imagine her personal demons and the loneliness that can often accompany suffering in the spotlight, I do know that Houston wasn’t alone. Millions of people in this country struggle with substance abuse and often fall victim to the overly punitive laws used to punish it. 

For the millions of fans who let her music intimately narrate their lives, Houston was almost like a family member, the one who fumbled away a lot and squandered the little that was left. We gossiped about her marriage, her weight, turned her "crack is whack" comments into the stuff of pop legend. 

It was too easy to do. Much easier than acknowledging, as journalist and music historian Davey D wrote, that she represented both the good and bad of a generation of early hip hop pioneers. That her drawn out public decline was eerily similar to personal wars waged–and lost–by other black legends: Billie Holiday, Michael Jackson, Gil Scott-Heron. Houston’s death, though shocking, isn’t surprising. She’s the latest in a series of tortured black stars to fall victim to themselves. Greg Tate wrote at the Village Voice after Gil Scott Heron’s passing that his death "reminds me that one thing my community does worst is intervene in the flaming out of our brightest and most fragile stars, so physically on edge are most of us ourselves."

Houston infamously talked to Diane Sawyer about her long-rumored drug use during an interview in 2002. When Sawyer asked her to name her biggest devil, Houston replied: "It’s my decision so the biggest devil is me. I’m either my best friend or my worst enemy."

The same can probably be said for most of us. Only our battles are usually kept hidden from public view. And so we rely on entertainers to sing our pain and our glory–and perform it, on and off stage.