The tragedy of Whitney Houston: A modern-day Sahib, Bibi aur Ghulam

My earliest memory of Whitney Houston is vintage 1980s. The skinny girl with big hair and giant plastic earrings, singing I Wanna Dance With Somebody. The neon-coloured images flickering across our rickety TV set as part of the 1988 Grammys coverage, Doordarshan's sole and highly anticipated concession to its teenage demographic.

She was black and beautiful, a revelation for us Indians who never quite learned to put those two words together in the same sentence. And for mainstream America which had long placed black women at the bottom of sexual desirability totem pole. Whitney was America's black sweetheart: the first to grace the cover of the teenage magazine, Seventeen, the first to romance a white man in a mainstream Hollywood blockbuster – without once referencing her race. The "squeaky-clean, church-going, girl-next-door" Houston officially became America's "national treasure" when she sang the national anthem at the 1991 Super Bowl in honour of the armed forces in the Persian Gulf.

 The tragedy of Whitney Houston: A modern-day Sahib, Bibi aur Ghulam

The true tragedy of Whitney Houston: A flesh-and-blood human being reduced to a mere custodian of "the national treasure that happened to reside within her". Reuters

A gospel singer's daughter blessed with a phenomenal voice, she was the angelic antithesis to bad, blond, tinny-voiced Madonna and her not-so-virginal hijinks. No one back then – not even her worst critic – could have predicted this cliched rock star end: found dead in a bathtub from 'mysterious causes', read: drugs and alcohol. Media reports of her last days mark the headlong fall from grace:

Though Houston greeted people with a warm smile, she appeared disheveled in mismatched clothes and hair that was dripping wet with either sweat or water. The visibly bloated singer displayed erratic behavior throughout the afternoon — flailing her hands frenetically as she spoke to Brandy and Monica, skipping around the ballroom in a child-like fashion and wandering aimlessly about the lobby. It was mentioned by a Grammy staffer that security personnel received calls of the singer doing handstands by the pool.

But Whitney was no Amy Winehouse, a wild child addicted to the sex, drugs and rock & roll lifestyle. She was undone instead by the man she once described as "the love of my life", aka Bobby Brown, a mediocre R&B star best known for his substance abuse problems, jail terms, and marrying Whitney Houston. The story of their marriage – finally revealed on Oprah in 2009 – reads like the Hollywood version of Sahib, Bibi aur Ghulam with Whitney as the modern-day Choti Bahu turning to drugs to hold on to an insecure husband who couldn't handle her success:

Oprah: Were you weak to him or were you weak to the drugs? Because the world's perception is you were weak to the drugs.

Whitney: He was my drug. I didn't do anything without him. I wasn't getting high by myself. It was me and him together. You know, we were partners. And that's what my high was. Him. He and I being together. And whatever we did, we did together. No matter what, we did it together.

Oprah: Because you were his wife.

Whitney: Yes. And he was my husband. And I'm gonna make this happen and we're gonna make this work. And that's the way it was.

She was the good Christian girl determined to honour her marriage vows – be it in sickness or in vice.

There are lengths perhaps even the most adoring wife shouldn't go to save her marriage, a lesson Whitney learned too late. By the time she divorced Brown in 2007, she'd irretrievably lost her career and her way, becoming yet another washed up rock junkie making news for her drug-fuelled mishaps. And more unforgivably, she'd lost her voice. Panning her final album I Look To You, critic Ann Powers wrote, “The pain and, frankly, disgust that so many pop fans felt during Houston's decline was caused not so much by her personal distress as by her seemingly careless treatment of the national treasure that happened to reside within her."

This then is the true tragedy of Whitney Houston: A flesh-and-blood human being reduced to a mere custodian of "the national treasure that happened to reside within her" – that she failed to protect due to her shameful personal struggles. In the midst of the flurry of 'heartfelt' tributes, I can't help wonder, are they mourning the death of Whitney or the final demise of The Voice?

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Updated Date: Feb 13, 2012 14:33:41 IST