The news of Whitney Houston's untimely death at the age of 48 has evidently shaken the music industry, as well as her millions of fans across the globe. And the feeling is an all too familiar one. Shock, of course, that such a great talent is no longer with us and will no longer have the chance to silence the critics who wrote her off as a hopeless addict many years ago. But also, a more complex emotion no doubt, from those who knew her well and those who would only ever know her through the picture painted by the media. An emotion that mixes guilt and sadness, because although the timing of her death came as a shock, the fact that it has happened at all is perhaps less shocking, given the years of substance abuse that she is reported to have suffered.
It's a familiar feeling to many because it was the same mix of emotions that people shared when Amy Winehouse passed away last year. Again - another great talent taken too young; but given the persistent abuse of drugs and alcohol, no surprise that her body finally gave in. Sunday night's Grammy awards paid tribute to her talent in a number of ways. The majority of stars on the red carpet had something to say in her memory. Lady GaGa opted for an understated entrance, avoiding the red carpet altogether, but dressed in black, with a veil, quite possibly a gesture of remembrance for Houston. Jennifer Hudson went on to perform a stark rendition of the song that Whitney made famous in the 1990s, 'I Will Always Love You.' Under normal circumstances, it would have been an impressive performance and Hudson was clearly feeling the emotional strain of the evening. But what her performance really reminded the viewers of was the extent of Whitney's vocal talent. She made that song sound effortless, every time she sang it. On Sunday night, it sounded like a serious task for Hudson.
The video montage that was shown, of Whitney collecting her Grammy awards, reminded us where it had all began. Fresh-faced and dressed in a typically (for the 1980s) over-the-top and off-the-shoulder red dress, Whitney's acceptance speech in 1986, for 'Saving All My Love For You' showed the singer as a humble young star, with the eyes of the world on her. Demonstrating the importance of her religious upbringing, she thanked God first and foremost and then her parents. Her mother, Cissy Houston was in the audience that night, shown clapping her daughter enthusiastically as she performed the song live - faultlessly, effortlessly. And it was her cousin, Dionne Warwick that presented the award to her, barely containing her excitement at reading out Whitney's name. She beat Madonna, Linda Ronstadt and Pat Benetar to the prize and as the nominees were called out, the cheers from the crowd gave a clear indication of who was going to take the prize home that night. It was the first of her major industry awards and she seemed truly in awe of the moment.
Eight years later, she won three Grammys in one night - the year that the world had been won over by her acting performance in The Bodyguard. And her acceptance speech was equally humble, equally full of awe and followed the same pattern; she thanked God, she thanked her parents; always mindful of those that helped her to become the star that she became. And she reminded everyone of the reason that she became that star, with a stunning live performance of 'I Will Always Love You.'
It's hard to see where it when wrong for Whitney Houston. Or, at least, it's hard to ascertain exactly why it went wrong. She had pop royalty in her blood stream, with Dionne Warwick as a first cousin, her mother, Cissy Houston, was a Grammy award winning soul and gospel singer and her godmother was the legend of soul music, Aretha Franklin. All three older than Whitney. All three have survived her. When she launched her career, there was no need for gimmick or scandal to get her noticed because her voice did all the work for her. Her debut album, Whitney Houston, which has sold over 25 million copies worldwide, pictured her simply wearing a vest top and a pair of jeans on the cover; a far cry from the Church-enraging tactics that Madonna employed to reach the same level of notoriety. Everything seemed in place for Whitney to experience an enduring, respectable career. But sadly, she fell foul of the music industry's biggest cliche and it would appear that the drugs took over.
Famously, she told Diane Sawyer in a 2002 interview that "crack is whack." The interview makes for painful viewing - even more so now in the wake of Whitney's death. With a croaked voice, she can barely get the words out to explain her gaunt appearance. She confidently denies claims of anorexia and bulimia but when she's questioned over allegations of drug misuse, she simply closes her eyes and shakes her head. And then turns aggressive. "Let's get one thing straight. Crack is cheap. I make way too much money to ever smoke crack. Let's get that straight. We don't do that. Crack is whack." That last phrase almost became a catchphrase associated with Whitney's decline and the 'we' that she referred to was her partner, Bobby Brown, who many have blamed for introducing her to drugs in the first place.
Two years after the Diane Sawyer interview, when Whitney's career was already stalling, Whitney and Bobby appeared in an ill-advised reality TV show, Being Bobby Brown. Bobby presumably intended it to be a solo vehicle but the Bravo channel only gave the show the go-ahead once Whitney had agreed to be featured as well. The second episode of the show reflected one of many turbulent periods in their relationship - when Bobby was summoned to court to defend himself against allegations that he had hit his partner. He claims that he hadn't hit her and that they were just playing.
Away from the cameras, though, it was never truly clear what was happening behind closed doors in Whitney's life. But you only need to look at the deceleration in her discography content to notice that things weren't going as planned for her. In 2009, two years after her eventual divorce from Bobby Brown, Whitney granted her first interview in seven years, with Oprah Winfrey. She finally admitted to using drugs with Bobby Brown and said that he used to lace marijuana with rock cocaine and confessed to having used drugs everyday with her former husband. It was the beginning of a slow comeback process for Whitney and for a time, it looked as though she may have come out on top. When she released the singles 'Million Dollar Bill' and 'My Love is Your Love', they were impressive attempts at doing something contemporary and showing that she still had what it took to win over a new generation of fans, as well as clawing back the children of the '80s that had once adored her.
But the accompanying world tour and a disastrous TV appearance soon put paid to those hopes. In 2009, she performed 'Million Dollar Bill' on the UK talent show X Factor, suffered a wardrobe malfunction when her dress popped open at the back and looked uncomfortable as she shuffled around on the stage. It seemed that she couldn't quite conjure up the stage presence of days gone by. Subsequent performances on her 'Nothing But Love' world tour highlighted the irony in the show's title. Fans reportedly walked out of concerts, feeling short-changed by the sub-standard performances that Whitney turned in. Shows were cancelled by apparent illness but Whitney had never really convinced people that she was clean from drug use, whether it be illegal or prescription, so suspicions ran high at the real cause of the cancellations.
In 2011, her record company, Arista - a name synonymous with her success - folded. It seemed like another door closing on Whitney's chances of regaining her former success and rebuilding her reputation. Tales of debt problems were countered by reports of her determination to shine once more, in the film Sparkle, with Jordin Sparks. It was hard to tell which way things would go for Houston but she never got the chance to prove the naysayers wrong. After a brief performance at Clive Davis' pre-Grammys party, onstage with Kelly Price, Whitney was found dead in her Beverley Hilton hotel room.
The exact details of the cause of death are yet to be released, as the coroners await the results of a toxicology report. As with Amy Winehouse's passing, it feels almost inevitable that substance abuse will have played a part; a tragic inevitability. One that is yet to be proved, of course, but despite her best efforts to get her career back on track, it never felt that Whitney Houston had won the battle with the demons that haunted her for so many years.