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Whitney Houston, American girl

Why America embraced Whitney Houston, and how it destroyed her.

Illustration of Whitney Houston singing with the top half of her face obscured by a waving American flag. Hélène Baum-Owoyele for Vox

When people talked about Whitney Houston at the start of her career, there was a very specific image they returned to over and over again: Whitney Houston, people used to say, was America.

This was in the ’80s, when Houston wanted to dance with somebody who loved her; in the ’90s, when she ran down the steps of an airplane in The Bodyguard to kiss Kevin Costner. Before she told Diane Sawyer that crack is wack; before Being Bobby Brown; before everything that came toward the tragic end of her life in 2012.

“There she stands, Miss Black America,” began a Time magazine profile of Whitney Houston in 1987. “With her impeccable face, sleek figure and supernova smile, she looks like a Cosby kid made in heaven. She stirs sentiments not of lust but of protectiveness and awe; everybody around wants to adopt her, escort her or be her. And now this perfect creature picks up a microphone. Oh. You mean she sings too?”

The 2018 documentary Whitney features a series of man-on-the-street interviews conducted shortly after Houston’s landmark rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the 1991 Super Bowl.

“What do you think of when you hear the name Whitney Houston?” people are asked.

“America,” says a young white girl. “The national anthem, that’s the first thing I think of.”

The image stuck. As Houston began to publicly struggle with addiction, the press kept making confused references to those halcyon days when Whitney Houston meant America.

Whitney Houston sings the National Anthem at Super Bowl XXV on January 27, 1991 in Tampa, Florida.
Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

In 2000, Houston’s planned performance at the Oscars was abruptly canceled amid reports that she was “out of it” during rehearsal, she was caught with pot in her bag at the airport, and she showed up apparently high to an interview with Jane magazine. Such “bad press,” the Washington Post noted, was “a relatively new experience for the gospel singer’s daughter, the all-American girl.”

In 2006, after the National Enquirer published photographs of drug paraphernalia in Houston’s bathroom, Salon described her, past tense, as someone who used to be “the first Black America’s sweetheart” and “the Black Princess Di.”

At the peak of her career, from her debut in 1985 to the beginning of her public spiral in 2000, Houston seemed to represent a kind of Americana to which Black women are not usually allowed access. She stood for a white-coded gentility, a properness, a patriotism that is old-fashioned in its sweetness and earnestness. There’s Mom and baseball and apple pie, and there’s the American flag, and there’s Whitney Houston right up there with them, singing the “The Star-Spangled Banner” in a way no one else could come close to matching.

“I surpassed the so-called rules,” Houston recalled to Out magazine in 2000, as rumors of her downfall were beginning to swirl around her. “I beat the Beatles and the Elvises.”

Then everything changed.

In 2005, the Seth MacFarlane cartoon American Dad featured a throwaway Whitney Houston joke. Introducing her as “America’s sweetheart, Whitney Houston,” American Dad depicts Whitney as a desperate addict who’s been robbed of all her dignity.

In the scene, Whitney is being bribed into a private performance of her 1985 smash hit “The Greatest Love of All” for a white married couple. The husband forgot their anniversary, and his attempt to make it up to his wife is to hire Whitney to sing in exchange for a bag of cocaine.

“Come on,” the fake Whitney pants as the husband pulls her into the house, “I — I need my fix.”

“Remember the deal, Whitney,” the husband says sternly. “First you sing, then you get your precious cocaine.”

At first Whitney takes offense, but when the husband shakes the bag of cocaine in front of her face, she gives in and belts out a few off-key bars of her song: “No matter what they take from me, they can’t take away my dignity.” Then she lunges at the cocaine bag and falls flat on her face.

The unimpressed wife snatches the cocaine away from her husband and tosses it out of the front door. “Come on, Whitney, go get it,” she instructs, and Whitney crawls out of the door after the cocaine like she’s a dog.

The joke of the scene is that Houston has, despite the lyrics of her song, had her dignity taken away because of her issues with drug addiction. The scene assumes this idea is funny. It also assumes the idea becomes all the funnier because Houston was, for so long, America’s sweetheart.

Whitney Houston was America, and she was also Black. She was the Black America’s sweetheart, the Black Miss America, the Black all-American girl. She saw the rules she had to follow to make it big in pop music as a Black woman, and she followed them so well that she beat the Beatles and she beat the Elvises.

Whitney Houston performs on the Walt Disney Television on January 28, 1987.
Craig Sjodin/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images

Then Houston began to break the rules. In 1992 she married Bobby Brown, described at the height of his career as “the bad boy of R&B.” She struggled with addiction, at first in private and then in public. Her voice deteriorated. She showed up on Brown’s sleazy reality show, Being Bobby Brown, in 2005. Houston stopped standing for America, and almost at once, the public began to punish her viciously.

The press turned against her. No longer was Houston Miss Black America: Instead, wrote an LA celebrity journalist in 2006, “that woman, Whitney Houston, 42, is just another crack head.”

Her struggles with addiction became a running bit on late-night comedy shows. On the long list of women it was okay to mock with outright cruelty in the 2000s, there was a special place for Whitney Houston.

Houston’s fate shows that if there were a thousand ways to fail at being a white girl during the 2000s, there were a thousand thousand ways to fail at being a Black girl.

“I don’t know how to sing Black — and I don’t know how to sing white, either”

As Houston began her career in the mid-1980s, one thing was very clear, both to her and to Clive Davis, CEO of Arista Records. If Houston wanted to make it big in mainstream America, if she wanted to become a true pop star, then she had to make sure not to sound too Black.

“Anything that was too Black-sounding was sent back to the studio,” Arista’s former head of promotion Kenneth Reynolds explains in the 2018 documentary Whitney: Can I Be Me. “To say, ‘Black-sounding,’ in case you have a problem with that: it’s to say that it’s too George Clinton. It’s too Funkadelic. It’s too R&B. We want Joni Mitchell. We want Mariah Carey. We want Barbra Streisand. We want to achieve that sound more than we want to achieve other R&B sounds. We don’t want a female James Brown.”

That was what it meant for Houston to be both a Black woman and America’s sweetheart: She had to neutralize her Blackness within the public eye. And her embrace of a white-friendly sound paid off both commercially and critically. Houston’s self-titled debut album, released in 1985, stayed at No. 1 on Billboard for 14 weeks and went platinum 13 times. Houston became the first Black woman embraced by MTV. Her cover of “I Will Always Love You” is the bestselling song by a solo female artist of all time.

But Black critics suggested that Houston had sold out. Al Sharpton called her “Whitey Whitney” and called for a boycott. The essayist Trey Ellis argued that Houston’s 1987 single “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” sounded as though the singer had “applied Porcelana fade cream” to her “once extremely soulful throat”; that Houston had become one of a group of “cultural-mulatto, assimilationist nightmares; neutered mutations instead of thriving hybrids.” When Houston’s name was called at the Soul Train Awards in 1989, the crowd booed.

Whitney Houston performs with American gospel singers Bebe Winans (center) and CeCe Winans circa 1989.
Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

“I don’t know how to sing Black — and I don’t know how to sing white, either,” Houston protested to Essence in 1990. “I know how to sing. Music is not a color to me. It’s an art.”

She conceded, however, that her voice sounded more polished and proper on her records than it did in her concerts, and that she chose the sound of her albums deliberately. “Longevity — that’s what it’s all about,” she said in the same interview. “If you’re gonna have a long career, there’s a certain way to do it, and I did it that way. I’m not ashamed of it.”

Houston wasn’t only a white-friendly figure because of her rejection of traditionally Black song choices. Her image was also carefully designed to appeal to white America.

Houston wasn’t the “scary” kind of Black woman. She was aspirational. She had a middle-class family background. She was so thin and so beautiful she could giggle with an ice cream cone on the cover of Seventeen as a successful teen model before she was even a famous singer.

“To her admirers, Houston’s success represents an overdue vindication of that neglected American institution, the black middle class,” said Time magazine in 1987. “Here is a morality play with a happy ending: two strong, affectionate parents nurturing their talented daughter toward the show-biz dream of fame without pain.”

But surely there were naysayers? Well, yes, Time conceded: those who thought that maybe Houston was too skinny and too pretty to be real. “To scoffers in the rock critical Establishment,” the profile continues, “the 5-ft. 8-in., 115-lb. beauty is a black Barbie doll.”

The idea of a Black Barbie doll is so far from the worst thing a magazine could compare a Black woman to in 1987 that Time’s most damning portrait of Houston almost seemed to be just another compliment. It was in fact, pointedly, the reverse of the worst thing a magazine could compare a Black woman to in 1987. That would be a welfare queen.

“I am not always in a sequined gown. I can get down and dirty.”

In the 1980s, white America was terrified of the idea of a Black woman using money that belonged to the taxpayers. And as part of that ideology, white America had developed a whole racist boogeyman of a stereotyped Black woman. People were terrified of the idea of a curvy Black woman who came from a broken home. Her curviness was understood to mean that she was sexually voracious. Her background was understood to mean that she was poor and hence probably criminal.

Both Houston’s loving middle-class parents and her thinness seemed to neutralize that racist stereotype. (Houston’s parents were actually divorced, a fact the press would not learn until well into Houston’s career.) The parts of Houston’s image that might threaten to bring that stereotype back into focus — for instance, the fact that she had once been in a romantic relationship with her best friend Robyn Crawford — were carefully excised.

America’s Black sweetheart could not be bisexual. In 1987, bisexuality would still seem deviant. It would bring Houston too close for comfort to that idea of the sexually voracious Black woman.

Houston ended her romance with Crawford as her career began to take off. They remained friends publicly, but both of them stringently denied all rumors that there had ever been anything more to their friendship. Houston’s bisexuality became invisible, and her Blackness heavily veiled.

In this way, Houston was presented to the world as the opposite of that sort of Black woman. The bad kind of Black woman, the kind the president makes scary speeches about. And white people seemed to have decided it was safe for them to love her.

The Houston family sits together in their childhood home on January 01, 1987.
Dirck Halstead/Getty Images
Whitney Houston talks with President George H.W. Bush on May 02, 1990.
Diana Walker/Getty Images

So at the beginning of her career, when white people said that Houston represented America, what they meant was that Houston allowed white people to think of America as a land that had transcended race, without having to think about whether there were other Black people out there who they hated and feared. Here was this perfect, beautiful, untouchable pop princess with the voice of an angel — and she was Black. Where else in the world could you find that?

Houston herself appeared increasingly frustrated with her public image as a sweet and pure white-friendly virgin queen. “I am not always in a sequined gown,” she told Rolling Stone in 1993. “I am nobody’s angel. I can get down and dirty. I can get raunchy.”

She began playing with adding more R&B to her sound. She released a gospel album. In 1992, she married Bobby Brown.

In 1996, a reporter for the UK paper the Telegraph profiled Houston and kept noting with a faint hint of surprise that she really was Black. “A lilting hint of a black American accent” comes into her voice when she gets excited, he wrote, and her new movie The Preacher’s Wife “has become a very black film,” in which “all the characters are authentically black.” As for her private life: “She nurtures a ‘black’ marriage.”

The culture critic Soraya Nadia MacDonald described Houston’s dilemma in 2018 as a classic case of double consciousness: “the automatic, instinctual adjustments of everyday black Americans that turn us into perpetual politicians, always reading a room, internal blackness meter at the ready.” Houston, MacDonald writes, had to pay “the toll of continuously reconciling dual identities on a grand scale.”

Houston was apparently stifled by the work of reconciliation she constantly had to do. She was also traumatized by childhood sexual abuse, and by the marriage to Brown she would later describe as emotionally abusive. She had been a casual drug user since her teens, but she seems to have begun dealing with addiction in earnest by 1992, around the same time that she also began exploring ways to integrate her Blackness into her public image. She was rebelling on a lot of levels at that time, in ways both constructive and deeply self-destructive.

Yet even as she rebelled, Houston remained hyperaware that there were certain class and beauty standards she was expected to uphold to maintain her status as America’s sweetheart. Even when her public image reached its nadir, as it arguably did in her infamous 2002 interview with Diane Sawyer, she knew what standards she had to meet.

That interview would be the first time Houston publicly admitted to using drugs. But even as she made that admission, she insisted that two things were still true about herself.

“Let’s get that straight. Whitney is not going to be fat, ever. Okay?” Houston told Sawyer, snapping her fingers at the camera for emphasis. And: “Let’s get one thing straight. Crack is cheap. I make too much money to ever smoke crack. Let’s get that straight. Okay? We don’t do crack. We don’t do that. Crack is wack.”

In other words: She wasn’t fat, and she wasn’t poor. Even in a downward spiral, Houston was warding off the specter of the poor fat Black woman with both hands.

“We like this because it’s a ghetto story”

Houston’s struggles with addiction and with her marriage became more and more public throughout the 2000s. A sense began to develop, as Face magazine summarized in 2000, that it was “possible that she’s been behaving badly in a whole host of delicious ways.” The gossip press became increasingly, salaciously vicious to her.

Most infamously, in 2006, the National Enquirer published photos of drug paraphernalia scattered around Houston’s bathroom. “Inside Whitney’s Drug Den!” screamed the cover line, while lurid captions panted over the idea of “the secretly-bisexual beauty spending days amid piles of garbage smoking crack, using sex toys to satisfy herself and ignoring her personal hygiene.”

Even friendly gossip outlets were becoming harsh with Houston. “Beautiful Whitney Houston, whose voice is a national treasure, is now a skank junkie with no teeth, no money, no home (new reports today suggest she’s been evicted) no career…and worst of all, no friggin’ housekeeper!” said Lainey Gossip after those National Enquirer pictures came out. “Come on, y’all. How do you win that many Grammys and sell that many records and find yourself in a position where you can’t afford to find someone to clean up after your degenerate ass? Maybe this is the wake up call she needs, gossips. I mean, when you get to the point when you can’t pay your maid – I’d say it’s time to check back in to rehab, don’t you think???”

The gossip press was especially pointed about the dirtiness of those National Enquirer photos. It was part of what made them so scandalous. Plenty of celebrities do drugs in their gleaming marble homes and play it off as glamorous, but to do drugs somewhere dirty? While using sex toys? That’s sordid. It’s déclassé. It’s poor.

The horrible threat that Houston had avoided so carefully for so long, the image of the welfare queen, the racist stereotype of the poor Black woman from a broken home whose body is dirty and driven by lust: It all began to loom over Houston.

Which is part of why shows like American Dad found it funny to recall that, just a few short years prior, Houston had been considered America’s sweetheart. “Imagine a Black woman who uses drugs in a filthy room, symbolizing America! That would never be allowed.” That’s the joke.

The nascent digital media was savvy enough to know that simply writing off Houston for her drug use was problematic, and it was happy to provide a counternarrative, of sorts, to that part of her story. “The media particularly likes this kind of story because it plays into stereotypes of black degradation,” the scholar Craig Werner said in a Salon article in 2006. “The specific squalor of the Whitney Houston crack story, that part of it is racialized. There’s the idea that crack is a black drug. Which is horseshit. … We like this because it’s a ghetto story. And it shows no matter how high they rise, this is how they all fall.”

Still, highbrow left-wing publications were unhappy with Houston, too, just like the gossip press. But their issue wasn’t necessarily that her drug use was ruining her pop princess image. They were angry with her for ruining her voice — which, it was clear, few believed belonged to Houston herself.

Whitney Houston performs on ABC’s “Good Morning America” on September 1, 2009, in New York City.
Michael Loccisano/FilmMagic via Getty Images

Writing in Salon in 2006, the feminist critic Rebecca Traister described arguing with a friend who felt strongly that Houston’s public downfall had little to do with her race. “If distant engagement with celebrity life can be compared to friendship, she said, then Houston is the friend on whom we have finally been forced to give up,” Traister wrote. “Moreover, mentioning Robert Downey Jr. by way of comparison, my friend said that if Houston had been able to smoke crack and still produce compelling product — hit songs — we would have forgiven her anything, regardless of color.”

“The pain and, frankly, disgust that so many pop fans felt during Houston’s decline,” wrote the celebrated music critic Ann Powers for the LA Times in 2009, “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.”

Houston’s voice was not her own: It belonged to America.

“My life became the world’s. That’s not fair.”

The idea from the peak of her career, the idea that Whitney Houston was America, had come back to life. But it wasn’t Whitney Houston the person, who was America now, as Houston’s career plummeted. It wasn’t even Whitney Houston the pop star, or Whitney Houston the symbol.

It came to seem, instead, that Houston’s voice was America. Or, rather, that her voice belonged to America. It was one of America’s most prized possessions.

This trope of Houston’s voice as America’s possession plays into the white fetishization of the Black body that leads white people to believe that Black people are physically superior and intellectually inferior, a fetishization that was sharply parodied in Jordan Peele’s Oscar-nominated 2017 film Get Out. What is valuable about Houston is not her personhood, to this way of thinking, but the athletic force of her vocal cords. It’s her body. It does not truly belong to her, so when she chooses to abuse it, she is stealing from the rest of us.

How Houston herself might feel about America laying claim to her voice seemed of no particular concern to anyone. But she gave no evidence of appreciating the idea.

In 2009, Houston sat down for a comeback interview with Oprah. The narrative of the interview was that Houston, having successfully completed rehab and divorced Brown, was now past her struggles with addiction. With her new album, she was ready to apologize to the country, explain her past sins, and begin the work of reclaiming her old title as America’s sweetheart.

To prep Houston for her apology, Oprah read her that LA Times quote. “Your voice is a national treasure,” Oprah repeated glowingly. Houston flinched.

“When I became Whitney Houston and all this other stuff happened, my life became the world’s,” she said. “My privacy, my business. Who I was with. Who I married. And I was like, ‘That’s not fair.’”

Part of what Houston was articulating in that moment was the trap in which she’d been caught for her entire career. Houston was allowed to be America’s Black sweetheart, but only if she followed the rules laid out by white America. Be Black, but just enough. Be virginal, but also sexy, and also straight. Be thin. Be sweet. Be rich. Don’t ever do anything with your body that we don’t want you to do.

When Houston began to break those rules, in ways both good and bad, the brutal logic underpinning them became clear.

America might have forgiven Houston anything, any misbehavior, as long as she kept making the incredible physical force of her body available to the public. When she stopped, when her body began to break down, America revealed the truth: It never believed that Houston’s body belonged to her. It believed her body belonged to the country. Whitney was allowed to stand for America, to be Miss Black America, to be America’s sweetheart, because her body was America’s property.

In 2012, Houston was found dead in a hotel bathtub with drugs in her system. Amid the outpouring of grief and fond memories that ensued, one of the immediate reactions from the press was fury and outrage. Houston had finally succeeded in stealing her voice from the country, forever.

“Few pop singers have been gifted with a voice as glorious as Whitney Houston’s,” begins the Guardian’s obituary, “and even fewer have treated their talent with the frustrating indifference she did toward the end of her life.”

In the years since Houston’s death, critics have begun to work to reclaim her legacy for her astonishing voice rather than her series of tabloid scandals. But despite this attempt to reframe the Whitney Houston story, we never seem to have quite moved past the idea that her body belongs to America.

In 2019, Houston’s estate announced a deal with Primary Wave Music Publishing, a boutique music and marketing company in New York, to rebuild Whitney Houston’s business. The plan includes a jukebox musical, an album of unreleased tracks, and a Whitney Houston hologram that goes on tour, serenading the public. Her body, back out there again, performing for the world, with Houston herself long gone from it.

“Whitney was America’s sweetheart,” explained Primary Wave founder Larry Mestel. “The idea now is to remind people that that is what her legacy is.”

Whitney Houston onstage at the MECC Maastricht on October 23, 1993 in Maastricht, Netherlands.
Paul Bergen/Redferns via Getty Images

In the Purity Chronicles, Vox looks back at the sexual and gendered mores of the late ’90s and 2000s, one pop culture phenomenon at a time. Read more here.

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