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10 years after Whitney Houston’s death, what have we learned about her — and ourselves?

Two new books — ‘Didn’t We Almost Have It All’ and ‘Young Whitney’ — explore the making and unmaking of the ’80s pop sensation

Whitney on the set of her “Greatest Love of All” music video, 1986. (Bette Marshall)
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The night Whitney Houston died in her hotel room at the Beverly Hilton, she had planned to attend the annual gala for her mentor, hitmaker Clive Davis. Houston, 48, was getting ready for the party, her gown laid out in preparation, when she drowned in the bathtub, in a foot of water so hot she suffered burns from it (cocaine and heart disease were cited as contributing factors).

Downstairs, the gala went on as planned, even though Houston’s body had yet to be removed from her room, writes Gerrick Kennedy, author of “Didn’t We Almost Have It All: In Defense of Whitney Houston,” a collection of unsparing, deeply personal essays on the singer’s life and career that arrives 10 years after her death on Feb. 11, 2012.

That decision, which Kennedy, then a reporter on the scene for the Los Angeles Times, calls “grotesque,” was merely another in a series of heartbreaking indignities that did not end with Houston’s death. In 2018, Kanye West reportedly spent $85,000 on a notorious 2006 photo of Houston’s drug-strewn bathroom. The picture, taken by a family member, had initially been sold to the National Enquirer, which put it on the cover (“Inside Whitney’s Drug Den!”). West used the photo as an album cover for rapper Pusha T, recycling Houston’s humiliation for a younger generation that knew her mostly as an unwitting provider of cautionary, crack-is-wack drug memes. “[H]e knew we’d get the joke,” Kennedy writes. “After all, we were all in on it.”

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In early 2020, Houston’s estate sent a holographic version of the singer on tour, hoping that an uncanny valley version of Whitney would provide the income stream that her relatively paltry musical vaults had not. Unlike its real-life counterpart, this Whitney didn’t cause trouble. It was forever smiling and thin — and never late for a show. It didn’t look too young or too old — or, the closer you got, much like Whitney at all.

Hologram Whitney was, in its own way, a fitting reincarnation. Houston, Kennedy says, had long felt trapped by the things we wanted her to be. Under the supervision of Davis and Houston’s mother, gospel legend Cissy Houston, Whitney became a genre-smashing superstar whose appeal to crossover (read: White) audiences was integral to her success. For Houston, it was a tightrope walk. She struggled to seem neither “too Black” nor not Black enough. “Before Whitney, the country hadn’t collectively christened a Black girl as America’s Sweetheart,” Kennedy points out. “But what had she given up to get there?”

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Pretty much everything, it turns out. Early in her career, Houston presented as an angelic diva in glittering gowns, though she grappled with private demons: the alleged sexual abuse she suffered as a child, the substance abuse issues that began when she was a teenager, the fallout of her love affair with her best friend, Robyn Crawford.

None of these things were acceptable topics of discussion during Houston’s mid-1980s rise, Kennedy says, and like Janet Jackson and Britney Spears, she was treated shabbily for reasons that most people would find unacceptable now. In every way, Houston got the worst of it. Jackson and Spears had remained mostly quiet during their years in exile, and they survived long enough to earn our sympathy. But Houston never made it that far, as her private struggles soon became public. In 2000, a worried Burt Bacharach kicked her off the Oscars show. Her voice, weakened by years of misuse and Newport menthol cigarettes, was shot. She canceled concerts, and co-starred with her husband, R&B star Bobby Brown, in an alarming reality show that depicted her as a sweaty, hollow-eyed oversharer, more a punchline than a person. She tried our patience until we no longer wanted to save her, we just wanted to look away.

Kennedy’s book, unlike so many before it, is not a gossipy biography but a collection of often powerful meditations on Whitney’s life and the culture that failed her; it also features a foreword by singer-songwriter Brandy (“Whitney made me feel like anything was possible, even though everything she was doing had been so impossible for Black girls to achieve.”) Kennedy was a lifelong fan who dreamed of meeting Houston, and when he did, at a pre-Grammy function shortly before her death, she was clearly out of it — but kind to him. When Kennedy confessed his admiration to the star, he writes, “Though her eyes were sad, there was that smile, so radiant and warm. Whitney gently pressed her hand into mine. ‘Thank you, baby. God bless you.’ ”

Photographer Bette Marshall, the author of the slim, heart-rending “Young Whitney,” first met Houston when she was on the cusp of stardom at 18, and getting her picture taken was still a novelty. Marshall’s husband was a lawyer on Houston’s team, and, at least in the early years, Marshall was granted the kind of access Kennedy couldn’t dream of. Marshall photographed Houston singing in the studio; at her first major label audition; at the church where, 30 years later, her funeral would be held; giggling on a Princess phone in her childhood bedroom in her family’s New Jersey house, the stereotypical ‘80s suburban home right down to the plastic slipcovers on the sofa.

Houston is radiant and unselfconscious in front of the camera, writes Marshall, who regarded her with maternal concern. One of the last times Marshall saw her is at Houston’s wedding to Brown. It was a cursed affair: It was hot. Donald Trump was there. Houston’s mother, who feared the scandal-prone Brown was a bad influence on her daughter (though it may have been the other way around), looked miserable. It was impossible to penetrate the 800-strong crowd surrounding the couple, Marshall writes, and Houston waved from her elevated platform, like Queen Elizabeth.

To Marshall and Kennedy, Houston is forever trapped in amber, a lost soul ill-suited to the time in which she lived. Whether she might have fared better in today’s climate is anybody’s guess. Likely, we would have torn her down anyway, but we might have felt worse about it. “We know better now,” Kennedy writes, “but should have known better then.”

Allison Stewart writes about pop culture, music and politics for The Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune. She is working on a book about the history of the space program.

Didn’t We Almost Have It All

In Defense of Whitney Houston

By Garrick Kennedy

Abrams Press. 320 pp. $28.00.

Young Whitney

Stories and Photographs

By Bette Marshall

Cinergistik. 108 pp. $29.95

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