Hulu’s Framing Britney Spears, a documentary which looked at the titular star’s conservatorship, the “Free Britney” movement, and the effect of the ‘90s and ‘00s media in constructing and destroying the image of the titular pop star, not only placed Spears in recent context, but of storytelling traditions more broadly. Contextualizing the media’s frenzied coverage of the relationship between Spears and Justin Timberlake, New York Times critic Wesley Morris quipped, “We don’t have royalty here, we’ve got famous people.” The tabloids and mainstream press alike were lathered up about the narrative possibilities of a young, symbolic American couple. With royalty comes the fairy tale, another vestigial cultural artifact from the days when European kings and queens, and the aristocratic characters in their courts were essentially the only people in their kingdoms who could read. Then, Spears and Timberlake, who had starred together in Disney’s The All-New Mickey Mouse Club in the early ‘90s, were like celebrity versions of the noble lovers featured in the animated fairy tales the “Magic Kingdom” produced. Now, in light of her ongoing legal battle over the restrictive conservatorship that is still executed by her father Jamie, Spears has come to be read as the 21st century version of a princess locked in a castle, an identification supported by contemporary headlines that ask, “Will the princess of pop finally find freedom?”
Before her, the closest this country came to anointing a royal family was embracing the Kennedys and their self-created Camelot mythos. In America we elevate celebrities because we don’t have royalty, but we also delight in the demise of the pop-eminent because we believe in a half-glimpsed meritocracy. And so, just as we have fabricated royals, there are also the grim, ginned-up legends and contemporary fairy tales that circulate within and alongside their biographies (with storytelling flourish, JFK Jr.’s assistant published a book about life with her boss called Fairy Tale Interrupted). The numerous examples of the “Kennedy Curse” (JFK’s assassination and the cottage industry of conspiracy theory that surrounds it, Ted Kennedy and Chappequiddick, JFK Jr.’s freak death in a plane crash) eventually turned the family saga into tabloid fodder, and the members transformed into emblems of cracked fabulism; they were like a nonfictional, North American corollary of Marquez’s Buendía clan. Entertainer-kings like Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson also imbued their life stories with mythic, fantastical qualities, or enhanced the narrative elements that were actually true (or their publicists and biographers did it for them).
Few modern Americans embody this country’s fixation with quasi-majestic iconography like Whitney Houston, heir to the throne of a musical dynasty, and whose own battles with her father over money and personal freedom (he’d reportedly tried to pay someone to break her best friend’s legs) made her a kind of precursor to the Britney Spears we now know, although she is rarely regarded that way. Whitney was a sovereign symbol, a Black woman uncommonly elevated in the eyes of Middle America in the ‘80s and ‘90s; and yet someone who, despite her early struggles with a contingent of her core audience, made even critical Black Americans sing the national anthem. Taken together, two films presented this year, a streaming re-release of 1997’s Cinderella, and Lifetime’s documentary Whitney & Bobbi Kristina: Didn’t We Almost Have It All illustrate Whitney’s eventual transition from pop-cultural princess to fairy godmother to deposed queen.
Both movies lay out some of this transformation. On February 6, Lifetime aired Whitney & Bobbi Kristina, which focused on the eerie parallels between the lives and tragic deaths of Whitney and her daughter Bobbi Kristina Brown, who both died under mysterious circumstances. In Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, which began streaming on Disney+ February 12, Whitney plays the Fairy Godmother to Brandy’s Cinderella, in what was clearly a passing-of-the-torch moment between the pop stars. In life, she was human, and so flitted somewhere in between all the symbolic roles—the ingenue princess, life-affirming godmother, and the sensitive soul surrounded by haints, some of them her own demons. (In 2002, when asked to name the “devil,” among her vices, she told Diane Sawyer, “The biggest devil is me.”) In death, she remains shrouded in controversy.
Nine years ago, at age forty-eight, Whitney Houston drowned in a tub in the Beverly Hilton hotel. Unlike that other international icon Princess Diana, who Hilary Mantel famously described as having “slid into the Alma tunnel to re-emerge in the autumn of 1997, collar turned up, long feet like blades carving through the rain,” Whitney went to water and never came back as more than anything else. Unlike the death of Diana, which allowed Brits, who Mantel said “are bad at mourning our dead,” to unleash “a lawless fiesta of grief,” Whitney’s demise just confirmed suspicions, closing the coffin on someone who had been slowly dying before the world’s eyes (in a piece published two days after her death, CNN’s LZ Granderson, standing in for so many other writers, said he felt sadness, but “no shock” about her death). And yet, her dying was real and also symbolic: her submersion inside that suite of the Beverly Hilton spelled out the reality that some people, even those American culture often casts as indomitable (Black people, Black women, folks in recovery, and the mega-talented) do eventually give out.
Since she went under the water her family and friends have written memoirs, writers and filmmakers have considered her legacy, and her fans have missed her dearly. But beginning in the mid-’90s and continuing today, the public has generally been more interested in the alchemy associated with her passing than her living, glinting existence. By and large, the mainstream media and public’s interests are medieval, in math and chemical transformation, and fixated on formulas, which are engineered to sell tabloids and drive traffic to gossip sites: crack “receipts,” metallic drug paraphernalia, and dusty residue, the modern cauldrons and potions that turned her grey. For the cover of his 2018 album Daytona, Pusha T, hip-hop’s premier practitioner of the “coke rap” subgenre, used a picture of her drug-riddled bathroom that had originally been smacked onto the front of the National Enquirer in 2006. As depicted, the room is half-lit and busy with pipes, powder, a pack of cigarettes, and celebrity magazines. The rapper’s grimy aesthetic buttressed by the grotesque imagery of her vanity table, it was as if, via the allusion to her bathroom, Whitney offered the ultimate upgrade of his dealer braggadocio. Pusha T had made albums plumbing “nosetalgia,” and addict debasement, and now the singer was the embodiment of ruined royalty, someone who had slipped from the platform he now enjoyed back to common status. A lowly snorter of lines and pitiful bug-a-boo in a dealer’s beeper queue—“The Voice” turned hoarse, beggard, shattered. Maybe he was making a point about loyalty—her sister-in-law had sold the photo to the Enquirer in the first place—or maybe the cover was just a publicity stunt, another attempt to capitalize off of her private troubles such that her bathroom, a space of relief and symbolic safe harbor, was now mucked up and public all over again. (The fact that Kanye West, the estranged husband of a member of the “Kardashian Dynasty,” America’s reality-TV nobility, urged Pusha T to change the artwork to the bathroom picture at the eleventh hour and paid the $85,000 licensing fee for the photo is eyebrow-raising to say the least.)
For many years now, Whitney’s legacy has been marked by reduction, and by that I mean illicit recipes cooked on stoves and sold, but also the process of distilling her story. Her trajectory went seemingly downward, from America’s Sweetheart, a person whose image was as pleasant, treacly, and national as apple pie, to haggard, circumscribed cover star seen in the watery, full-bleed photography of supermarket rags. Her experiences were sensationalized in stand-up routines, sketch comedy shows, and E! True Hollywood Story (an emphasis on “true,” because lots of these fame-adjacent tales could be mistaken for fables). In the end, her life was reduced to a cautionary fairy tale, even by her sister-in-law Pat Houston, who now serves as the executor of her estate.
The symbolism of her drowning was aided by reports of her interest in a second baptism before her death. Years earlier, Houston had been baptized in the Jordan River, and outlets claimed those close to her said she’d expressed an interest in returning there for another ceremony. TMZ also reported that in the days before she drowned, she quoted bible verses that referenced Jesus’s baptism, and the night before she died, she sang “Jesus Loves Me” at a pre-Grammy jam session. Ostensibly, that gesture cued Whitney’s public recommitment to her church roots, but it also signaled the singer’s imminent return to a more mysterious foundation: the very fount of life and death. In some way or another, she expressed in interviews throughout her career that going back, abandoning her superstar identity in favor of a private self, was one of her core desires. I don’t know if she wanted to die, but it seems quite likely that, based on statements made by those close to her, she would have welcomed the retirement of her “Whitney Houston” persona. She was interested in a return to a kind of authentic before-time, an elemental period pre-stardom, closer in time to her immersion inside her mother’s amniotic sac than her slide down the bathtub she drowned in.
Before she died, she talked to Oprah and others about retiring to an island with Bobbi Kristina and running an organic fruit stand, searching for joy and also the Christian belief in a “peace that passes all understanding.” There, on that island, she would not be Whitney Houston. She’d be Nippy, her childhood nickname, with her baby girl in tow. Life would be simple. The ocean would kiss the beach and drift, intermittently, back to where it came from. The water, moved by tidal waves, would be the only body to retreat to a larger, more dangerous source.
There are two tentpoles of annual Whitney Houston appreciation, and they are fixed on her tombstone: her birthday, August 9, and February 11, the day she died. The arrangement of her death and birth dates on the calendar means that we mourn her first and celebrate her later in the year, the opposite of the arc from womb to tomb. But this reversal is endemic to Whitney’s reported psychological preoccupations before death. The public’s general feeling is that she went down. What if she didn’t go down, but back? And what if her story was not a dark fairy tale but more closely aligned with the stories in Black American folklore?
In her 2013 memoir Remembering Whitney: My Story of Love, Loss, and the Night the Music Stopped, one of the many books released by the superstar’s loved ones, Cissy Houston remembers a premonition, a sense that there was something ephemeral about her daughter even as an infant. “The day Nippy was born, as I was holding her in my arms in my hospital bed, something told me she wouldn’t be with me long.” Was she intuiting her child’s early grave, or her baby’s preternaturally dawning charisma, which would eventually draw an adoring fandom? Maybe it was both. As Houston writes, “Right after Nippy was born, the nurses took her all around the hospital to show her off. It was as if she belonged to the public from the start.”
Cissy Houston’s description of Whitney’s New Jersey childhood further adds to the perception of her daughter’s charmed existence. Her parents were perfectly pitched to develop her gifts: Cissy was a famous solo gospel artist and member of the vocal group the Sweet Inspirations, as well as a background singer for Aretha Franklin, Elvis Presley, and Jimi Hendrix, among others. Whitney’s father John was the picture of moral support and business savvy; when he wasn’t working as a civil servant at Newark City Hall, he watched the kids and helped manage his wife’s career. Cissy and John Houston had hustled to move their three children away from blighted, post-riots Newark and into an upwardly mobile middle class existence in nearby East Orange, a shift signified by their buying a white clapboard house.
Still, as a girl, Whitney longed to claim her Newark bona fides, a habit that infuriated Cissy. As she writes of her daughter’s posturing, “Trying to be like the other girls in East Orange, she started bragging about being from the projects, or ‘the bricks’—a habit that drove me crazy, especially since John and I had fought so hard to give our kids a solid middle-class upbringing.” Although she and her brothers had spent five weeks with a family friend who lived in what Cissy described as “one of Newark’s rougher neighborhoods” while their parents were in Las Vegas working with Elvis, Whitney hadn’t actually spent the amount of time in the hood she claimed she had. Already, Whitney understood the value of a certain kind of authenticity. That desire for a particular sort of realness, along with a blinking mischievousness and beguiling manner, rounded out young Whitney’s personality. In fact, her father had taken her nickname, Nippy, from a rascally comic strip character. The baby in a family of two older sons, Cissy says that Whitney easily got out of trouble, even when she was caught red-handed. One particular incident Cissy recounts, which occurred in 1967 when her daughter was four, adds a mystical overlay to Whitney lore. When Cissy was on tour in Vegas singing backup for Aretha Franklin, Whitney was running through the house with a wire hanger in her hand and tripped. The hanger “rammed right back toward her throat,” and nearly pierced her vocal cords. Cissy marveled at the fact that her daughter had evaded serious injury, and that her voice went back to normal, calling the outcome a “miracle.” The fact that “the Voice” was almost irreparably damaged before it could mature further adds to the magic associated with Whitney and her instrument, which her impresario Clive Davis called “a priceless Stradivarius” in his 2013 memoir.
At twelve, Whitney decided to follow in the family’s footsteps and become a singer. As a teenager she sang backup at her mother’s solo showcases in New York City, accompanied her to studio sessions, and eventually did more of her own backup work, for Lou Rawls and Chaka Khan. Soon, a Vogue photographer spotted her outside of a recording session. “He’d taken some photos at Carnegie Hall the night before and thought she’d make a perfect teen model,” Cissy recollects. From then on, Whitney started modelling for the fledgling Click agency, appearing in fashion magazines like Vogue, Essence, Cosmopolitan, and Harper’s Bazaar. She even landed the cover of Seventeen when she was a senior in high school. Her modeling period first showed the force of her representational possibilities: on newsstands, she was a “perfect teen model,” a quintessential teenage girl, smiling and playing a version of herself that was preoccupied with conventional adolescent things like eating an ice cream cone without spilling on her sweater-dress, the scenario shown on the Seventeen cover. In reality, her experiences were more complex. Whitney had been experimenting with drugs since she was a tween, and she and her best friend Robyn Crawford had started making love to each other. The tension between how she appeared and who she actually was marked the rest of her life. As Cissy Houston writes in her memoir, “She was complicated, and she could be fragile.”
In those early days, Whitney was positioned in the public as a scion of showbiz royalty. Her place in the lineage of Cissy, her cousins Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick, and her play-aunt Aretha, the “Queen of Soul,” all worked in her favor. (In this Tonight Show interview from 1985, Joan Rivers, apparently awed by the suffusion of talent in the family, jokingly asks Whitney if her father is Duke Ellington.) Legendary music executive Clive Davis mentored her, signed her to Arista Records, and acted as her personal svengali. In 1987, two years after her mega-successful self-titled debut album was released, Richard Corliss profiled Whitney for Time. In the piece, titled “The Prom Queen of Soul,” the critic summed up her positioning in the country’s popular imagination:
There she stands, Miss Black America. 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 way Corliss regards her transcendent singing ability as an afterthought signals what she meant in the zeitgeist: Whitney was a pure symbol, through and through. Token of clean Black striving, signifier of the bootstraps future heralded by The Cosby Show (she’d also reportedly turned down a chance to play Sondra Huxtable on the show before Sabrina LeBeauf was cast in the role). Living doll. “Creature” of white American comfort. Mannequin of Middle American paternalism, onto which an awards gown, pageant sash, or cocktail dress might be draped. In “Whitney Houston, American Girl,” an essay published in July, critic Constance Grady explained what she meant to American culture during her heyday: “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.”
Her extra-musical ambitions would have deepened and advanced that cultural coding. In that Time profile, Corliss reported that Whitney was considering starring in two film adaptations: one, of the musical Dreamgirls, would offer her a chance to send-up the Supremes just as she was becoming her generation’s Diana Ross. The other option was a movie version of Toni Morrison’s 1981 novel Tar Baby, a story suffused, like much of Morrison’s fiction, with dense mythology. The book gets its title from one of Joel Chandler Harris’s popular “Uncle Remus” stories, which he’d compiled from Black Southerners. The folk tale, first published in 1881, is about Br’er Rabbit, a heroic trickster figure, and the fake rabbit, or tar baby made by rival Br’er Fox, to entrap him. The tar baby is a metaphor for an impossible situation: the more Br’er Rabbit works to free himself from the mess, the more entangled he becomes. Morrison’s novel concerns the love affair between Jadine, a Sorbonne-educated fashion model, and Son, a castaway, and their efforts to authenticate their lives in a white world. The novel ends with Son’s retreat into the hills of the Caribbean isle he washed onto at the beginning of the book: “Then he ran. Lickety-split. Lickety-split. Looking neither to the left nor to the right.” In a 1981 interview with Thomas LeClair in the New Republic, Morrison explained the significance of the tar baby as a symbol, saying, “For me, the tar baby came to mean the black woman who can hold things together.”
As John Irving wrote in his review of the novel for the New York Times: “‘Tar Baby’ is, of course, a black novel, a novel deeply perceptive of the black’s desire to create a mythology of his own to replace the stereotypes and myths the white man has constructed for him. It is also a book about a woman’s anger at – and her denial of – her need for an impossible man, and in this regard it is a woman’s novel too.” In addition to summing the book’s main thrusts, Irving presaged two things that would plague Whitney in the public eye: the failure to comply with white American mores and their associated stories, and entanglements with men deemed impossible (Bobby Brown, Ray J). Her potential casting seems kind of eerie now.
Of course, she didn’t make either film, but I wonder: If only Whitney knew what Jadine knew. Jadine and Son were like proto-Whitney and Bobby, a couple doomed by their own limitations. It’s possible Whitney initially saw her future husband as a symbol of something, too. In Remembering Whitney, Cissy Houston writes, “In some ways, I think Bobby was Nippy’s rebellion. Around him, she didn’t have to be the perfect girl, or America’s sweetheart, and she felt she could relax and just be the person she truly was. Of course, drugs complicated their relationship.” Much has been written about her drug use, which gradually increased in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and its implications on her life, career, and voice. It’s been used as a catalyst for her downfall and a scape-goat to sour perception of Bobby Brown, who also struggled with drug and alcohol addiction. But what about what drugs might have offered her? I don’t know why Whitney Houston used drugs, or why casual use escalated as it did, but it’s tempting to read more than coincidence into her worsening drug problem and increasing celebrity, which happened simultaneously. In his 1995 book Vital Signs: Music, Movies, and Other Manias, Ian Penman wrote that “drugs are one of our last sources of the secretly sublime, the sublimely secret, the clandestine: it’s the last place we can go to escape the relentless publicity of modern life, somewhere to be two-faced and nine-lived. For sure, the lie can be as addictive as the high.” If what he thinks is true, did cocaine provide a place for Whitney to hide? For someone whose face had been plastered on magazines since she was a teenager, who knows what mirrored her private visage. Was she skilled at navigating all of her faces, or did she eventually come to feel like a chimera?
By her early thirties, Whitney had skyrocketed to fame, making chart-topping, multi-platinum albums, touring the world, and releasing The Bodyguard: Original Soundtrack Album, the best-selling soundtrack of all time. She also became something of a global paragon of American—and Black American—excellence. She recorded “One Moment in Time,” the theme to the 1988 Olympics, and soon after, she cemented her place in American symbology by singing the best-regarded and most commercially successful rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The theme went platinum and topped charts twice—in 1991, and then once it was re-released after the September 11 attacks. For a time—perhaps for all time—she’s synonymous with that song, the country’s first and most prominent legend it tells about itself. Writing for the New Yorker in 2016, Cinque Henderson opined, “In the instant of her singing, a quarter century ago, Houston changed what it sounded like to be American.” That transformation wasn’t just about her vocal gymnastics; her version inspired other unlikely patriots. “By making the idea of freedom the emotional and structural high point (not just the high note) of the anthem, Houston unlocked that iron door for black people and helped make the song a part of our cultural patrimony, too.” And what would her adjacency to national myth do to her own? Like her “Auntie Ree” Aretha Franklin, Whitney was apt at covering classic songs, and she made them hers in more ways than one. She covered American mythos in her own velvety tones, making her interpretation just as valid as other more canonical ones. But with interpretation comes a sense of personal buy-in, or fusion between artist and material. And maybe that was too much. At the same time her cover of the “Star-Spangled Banner” was shooting up the pop charts, by way of her acting roles, she presented herself in ever more symbolic terms.
In the 1990s, she moved into acting and producing films, including The Bodyguard, Waiting to Exhale, and The Preacher’s Wife. In 1997, she executive-produced and starred in ABC’s production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, and hand-picked Brandy for the title role. The film was a ratings hit when it premiered, garnering an estimated 60 million viewers. The film represented the transition from Whitney’s pop dominance to Brandy’s. In addition to Whitney’s literal role as a Fairy Godmother to Brandy’s Cinderella, behind-the-scenes footage illustrates the way this dynamic carried over in real life; Houston, who had personally picked Brandy for the role, is seen coaching Brandy in the vocal booth. Bernadette Peters, who played Cinderella’s stepmother said, “Brandy’s life was turning into a real Cinderella story. In fact, Whitney’s been like a Fairy Godmother to Brandy ever since they met.” In the tape, Whitney seems to hint at the change of the guard, citing her age as a reason why she herself couldn’t play the role. “Well, I’m thirty-three now, I’m not quite feeling like Cinderella,” she said.
Barely ten years into her career, which is ages in American pop stardom, Whitney was already accepting the change in her public perception, which might have been hard to do given the way she’d been framed earlier. In his 2018 review of Kevin Macdonald’s feature documentary Whitney, Wesley Morris points at how “Whitney from Newark becomes the inverse of Dorothy from Kansas — or, in “The Wiz,” Dorothy from Harlem.” Part of this reversal seemed intentional on Whitney’s part, the result of years of fatigue from having to navigate between global superstar and ordinary Jersey girl. In the Lifetime documentary, Houston’s sister-in-law Tina Brown said, “The difference between Whitney and Nippy is Whitney is a make-believe person, like she had to please everybody. Whitney was somebody that was basically a lie…she didn’t want to be Whitney Houston.” In Remembering Whitney, Cissy Houston recalls her daughter’s uneasy management of her dual identities: “Sometimes, before going out onstage, Nippy would say, ‘Okay, I’ve got to go be Whitney Houston now.’” Psychological compartmentalization is understandably a part of every public figure’s life, but what happens when the persona is also their given name?
In the end, Cissy Houston ascribes a religious fatalism to her daughter’s life.“Nippy made her decision, and everything that happened afterward—well, that can never be changed. And you know, God had His hand in all of this, too. Nothing happens outside of His plan, no matter how much we might not like the outcome.” There is something transfixing about the way Cissy euphemizes Whitney’s death, casting it into the passive, mythic language of a folktale. “After everything we had been through, she had suddenly slipped away, forever.”
Whitney & Bobbi Kristina is the third in a series of documentaries (2017’s Whitney: Can I Be Me? and 2018’s Whitney). In addition to those movies, there are Whitney characters in TV movies, including Lifetime’s Whitney (2015), and BET’s The Bobby Brown Story (2018). The Whitney stories are inverse Cinderella tales: the princess who becomes a pauper, as some tabloids reported (a claim Cissy Houston vehemently denied), roaming Atlanta in unflattering clothing. She went from wearing an ankle-length fur coat, appearing regal and fierce in the video of her 1998 single “Heartbreak Hotel”, to looking tore up in a slinky mink outside of a gas station in 2005. Adding to the mystical quality of her life is that it’s a story about water and its mysterious properties. The documentaries report that Whitney loved the water, loved swimming, and according to her family, rented a house in Laguna Hills, California just so she could be closer to the ocean.
Reversal of fortune is a prominent theme in fairy tales. In addition to celebrity declines, nowadays the theme finds purchase in accounts featuring stately, archaic legal jargon: estate executors, the implications of wills, and of course, conservatorships. In his book Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion, Jack Zipes explains that fairy tales reflected “feudal agrarian conditions,” and that it was common to see extended families depicted within them. Zipes writes that “If the mother, queen, or fairy godmother appears in a more active role than the male, she still acts in favor of a patriarchal society. Whether she be good or evil, her actions lead a young woman to seek salvation in marriage with a prince (Cinderella, The Goose Maid, and ‘Snow White’).” In her 1974 book Woman Hating: A Radical Look at Sexuality, Andrea Dworkin interrogates the cultural value of fairy tales, and the gendered lessons within them:
When one enters the world of fairy tale one seeks with difficulty for the actual place where legend and history part. One wants to locate the precise moment when fiction penetrates into the psyche as reality, and history begins to mirror it. Or vice versa. Women live in fairy tale [sic] as magical figures, as beauty, danger, innocence, malice, and greed. In the personae of the fairy tale —the wicked witch, the beautiful princess, the heroic prince—we find what the culture would have us know about who we are.
The point is that we have not formed that ancient world—it has formed us. We ingested it as children whole, had its values and consciousness imprinted on our minds as cultural absolutes long before we were in fact men and women. We have taken the fairy tales of childhood with us into maturity, chewed but still lying in the stomach, as real identity. Between Snow-white and her heroic prince, our two great fictions, we never did have much of a chance. At some point, the Great Divide took place: they (the boys) dreamed of mounting the Great Steed and buying Snow-white from the dwarfs; we (the girls) aspired to become that object of every necrophiliac’s lust—the innocent, victimized Sleeping Beauty, beauteous lump of ultimate, sleeping good. Despite ourselves, sometimes unknowing, sometimes knowing, unwilling, unable to do otherwise, we act out the roles we were taught.
Here is the beginning, where we learn who we must be, as well as the moral of the story.
But we don’t all heed to fairy tales. Bobbi Kristina, Whitney’s daughter, probably didn’t have enough perspective to look at the story, as she was living in it. Toward the end of their lives, Whitney and Bobbi Kristina’s public images were compromised visions conjured by television producers and estate administrators. The final nail in the coffin of Whitney’s public perception was a reality show called Being Bobby Brown, which Barry Garron of the Hollywood Reporter wrote managed “to rob Houston of any last shreds of dignity.” Further, he noted, “She alternately shies from the camera and performs for them.” Three months after Houston’s death, Bobbi Kristina started filming a show on the OWN network called The Houstons: On Our Own, ostensibly to help process the death of her mother (the show premiered in October 2012). In the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Rodney Ho compared the two women’s choices, writing, “Both participated in reality shows that did not appear to help their images.” In January 2015, Bobbi Kristina also drowned in a bathtub, and was on life support for months until she died in July of that year.
Tina Brown, Whitney’s ex-sister-in-law and Bobbi Kristina’s aunt, suspected her niece’s boyfriend Nick Gordon of foul play. In a confessional from Whitney & Bobbi Kristina, she said, using the language of gruesome fables, “Nick Gordon’s motivation for killing my niece would be greed. It’s all about money, power, and prestige. It’s dark, and it’s ugly.”
Winter and summer offer different modes of addressing Whitney’s legacy that are in line with seasonal cultural fixations. On her birthday she’s the iconic R&B-pop queen, an emblem of Black August; in February she’s something of a court jester. A 51-second MTV News interview with Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown from the ‘90s always seems to make the rounds either very early or very late in February, when editorializing about Black History Month goes into overdrive. In the clip, the couple could be someone’s intoxicated aunt and uncle, a bit over-the-top and hilarious. The interviewer asks them what Black History Month means to them. “We need a longer month,” Whitney says with gusto, smiles ironically and fans herself with a stack of paper. I wish the month was longer, too, if only it meant I could spend more time being reminded of Whitney’s sense of humor. Amid the annual memory of her death in February, and the general cultural fascination with her downfall, I have to really look to find the lighthearted stuff. And in looking I fall deeper in admiration of the woman, and more aware of the grapevine dance she did between embracing her immense talent and hiding. In looking at these memes I affirm that I am certainly not immune to the somewhat shallow conception of Black America as an extended family. I have always looked at Whitney Houston as a celebrity aunt, because she reminded me of a couple of my own: the way she dressed in her downtime, in jeans and sneakers; her down-to-earth personality; the ubiquitous cigarette pinched between her slender fingers; and her struggles with addiction. But that relationship does not feel entirely appropriate, not least of all because “auntie” is a fraught designation, and is somewhat ageist if the term has not been embraced by the designee. It’s also not quite right. With time, I’ve realized that Whitney is more like my Fairy Godmother.
Unlike Brandy and Christina Aguilera, she didn’t anoint me as a vocal successor. She didn’t produce a film that advanced my professional trajectory, like she did for Brandy in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, or Raven-Symone in The Cheetah Girls. She didn’t mentor me, as she did for Monica, who also called Whitney her “fairy godmother.” But she taught me about the weight of decisions, the consequences of choosing the wrong man, of picking self-obliteration over self-conservation, and the way the two options can sometimes blur. If fairy dust is as diffuse as it seems, and travels by the wind or radio waves, it’s easy to pick up on messages even if they aren’t meant for you. Whitney’s magic powder was her voice, of course, but it was also her visual presence, in hundreds of televised transmissions throughout my childhood and teenage years. I grew up seeing her everywhere, and those glimpses were always eventful. She was on TV looking glamorous, joking, flashing a bit of around-the-way-girl realness, or looking privately untoward in public space. I was transfixed and transformed each time I saw her, whether on The Bodyguard; or in Waiting to Exhale; or Michael Jackson’s televised 30th anniversary tribute; or her infamous interview with Diane Sawyer; or the special features disc of her Greatest Hits DVD set; or Being Bobby Brown; or her comeback interview on the Oprah Show in 2009. Her image was ubiquitous, and tiny pictures of her appeared everywhere in the media, from when I was still eye-level with tabloids on supermarket end caps, until I was old enough to buy (and buy into) them myself. It was the sense of weariness, especially at the end, that especially captured my attention.
It is the difference in her demeanor before she divorced Brown (the stand-by-your-man fierceness) and afterwards (a sense of resigned regret) that has struck me most recently. In clips from her 2009 interview with Oprah, she looks like someone who wishes she’d spent the last ten years doing something different. In those excerpts, it seems like she’s admitted that the options had winnowed, professionally and personally. Her radiant voice was noticeably hoarse. She was single again, and Bobby Brown had already moved on to a relationship with another woman, a woman he’s now married to.
Whitney has been so ineluctably powerful to me recently because she made some of the choices I’m making now. The dominant impression is that in deciding how to best live her life, she messed up badly. My mom is my biggest role model, but I never saw her grow up; I don’t have an archive of her unfurling and unraveling and becoming to parse on blank nights. So I watch Whitney, on Youtube, and in VOD documentaries. In watching her ascent—and her supposed decline—it’s clear that some bad choices are relative. For instance, I’m compelled toward heterosexuality in a way that feels more intense than the clichéd description of “a moth to a flame”—I’m compelled like a thirtysomething woman who hears her biological clock ticking louder than speed-date buzzers in romcoms, louder than the music preferences in the “about me” section of dating profiles. The moth can’t think about its doom; I can. I know better. I need options; that’s how I stay alive. Just as I need to know that I can laugh at something devastating, I need to figure out more ways to survive and get what I want out of life. So even though I know that pursuing only hetero relationships with the kind of men I like opens up a future for me as a mother of my own biological children—I would prefer not to use all of my savings on IVF—it forecloses some other sorts of possibilities, including a happy solitude. My compulsion to family planning feels all-or-nothing in a way that really bothers me.
A few years ago, when I was in my late twenties, I went into panic mode. Until I calmed down, I became a little intense, if only in my head. I had gotten married and divorced by then, so I was not looking to settle down again. But I started to feel desperate knowing that I’d already been divorced from a man who checked plenty of my boxes. Moreover, I’d passed the point in time when my mom had me, at 26 (in a piece on Joni Mitchell, Lindsay Zoladz called that experiential overlap “cosmic vertigo”), and was starting over. Despite contemporary cultural messaging about the benefits of deferring marriage and motherhood, I lived with a magic number in the back of my mind—27, the age at which cis female fertility begins to decline. I began to worry about what was ahead of me. You wouldn’t know it by my behavior, as I said. I did not force relationships with men. I didn’t beg my friends to watch romcoms with me; I watched them alone. I carried my anxiety internally. I knew my own desperation and was ashamed of it. I grappled with the kind of existential anxiety that is hard to manage because it’s not manifesting outwardly, so it’s harder to fix; putting it out there and having people I trusted talk sense into me might’ve been more preferable to stage-directing my own life. I became a searcher at parties, head perpetually on a swivel, fixated (casually, of course) on an occasionally opening door, my gaze trained on whoever might walk through and change my life. I scanned rooms like an intelligence officer. I continuously measured the moment. I turned into a person who didn’t enjoy activities as much as yearned for something splendid (and magical!) to happen. I became like a person chasing an injury case. In that way, I was always waiting for something specific that would help me achieve my goal but wouldn’t hurt me, like a car traveling slow enough to hit someone, with a driver distracted enough not to notice anything until the accident has already happened; a wet floor to slip onto that also happens not to be situated near any objects that can seriously maim. Begging the universe for a man, any man to fall in love with, was as risky and foolhardy as praying for a slip-and-fall: it could go well, but it could also end very, very badly. I turned into someone who was afraid to look ugly or disheveled sometimes—or, human—because I was always after a meet-cute. I lived in the hope that some man with his shit together who was emotionally available would pop up and vibe with me, and decide that I was The One. I waited for Prince Charming, even though that’s not what we call him anymore. Luckily that phase didn’t last very long; I got sick of my own shit. It was pathetic wasting my great life waiting for someone to hypothetically improve on it. Part of this realization happened after decades of watching Whitney. Her fruit stand fantasy, and what it represents—freedom from prying eyes, productive solitude, protection for Bobbi Kristina—holds as much, if not more weight than the scandals and tabloids. Instead of being the kind of Fairy Godmother that works in service of patriarchy, Whitney’s example, and her idyllic island dream, showed me a different way.
Although it comes from a different pop idiom, I always think of Whitney when I listen to Fleetwood Mac’s “Gold Dust Woman.” The song, written by Stevie Nicks, is a coked-out fairy tale about a woman high on the white horse, a “black widow” who the narrator coaxes to “take your silver spoon and dig your grave.” In a 1997 conversation with Courtney Love for Spin, Nicks explained that “gold dust” meant cocaine, and, as she told her biographer Stephen Davis in the book Gold Dust Woman, the song has an ominous energy: “That song was about a very heavy, very bad time in my life. The drug addict in ‘Gold Dust Woman’ is out there, breaking her back, looking for drugs. I felt I wanted to re-create that dark situation, to warn people.” There is a kind of famous woman from decades ago who was known to frequent the Roxy, the Viper Room, Studio 54, and the other debauched mausoleums of fame. I think of the self-destructive moments of lots of famous women when I listen to that song, including Nicks, Amy Winehouse, Janis Joplin, and Whitney. Certain lyrics resonate more and more these days. Nicks sings of a haggard aristocracy, a bedraggled, exhausted eminence in struggling against a public, or lover-facing, image: “rulers make bad lovers / you better put your kingdom up for sale.” High on coke and cursed by her own myth, the Gold Dust Woman shifts into a dragon and a shadow. She is any woman in a bad spot, trying to find a way to something better, an identity that fits best. She is an emblem of warning, premonition, an “ancient queen” who encourages other women with her example. What I learned from Whitney, the Gold Dust Woman I consider the most, is that sometimes it’s better to be alone, to rule over your own self. The self is not a kingdom, but it’s enough. The chorus distills her influence: “Well did she make you cry, make you break down, shatter your illusions of love?” Yes, yes, and yes.
And Whitney, like the dragon-shadow-widow-Gold Dust Woman, had many selves to transmogrify into. But who was she, really, in private? That’s none of my business. Still, something of who she was showed up in her work, and if she was anything like the art she made, she sure was multi-faceted. Whitney Houston’s oeuvre is filled with gestures towards symbolic omnipotence, whether in her cover of Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman,” or “I’m Your Baby Tonight.” In “I’m Every Woman,” Ashford and Simpson’s lyrics make her as witchy as Nicks: “I can sense your needs, like rain unto the seeds / I can make a rhyme of confusion in your mind.” In “I’m Your Baby Tonight,” she lays bare her desire to shape-shift for her lover, claiming her mutability with pride. “Whatever you want from me, I’m giving you everything,” she sings, convincingly. In the music video directed by Julien Temple, she pays homage to old-showbiz glamour, adopting the aesthetic of different movements: Golden-era Marlene Dietrich androgyny, ‘60s Motown “Dancing in the Street” frenzy, Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face. So many types and female figures in one person. It occurs to me that the “you” in “I’m giving you everything” might not only refer to a lover; it could mean the public too.
All these years later, after the dark fallout, what is it about her that is still attractive to symbol-makers? In July 2020, President Donald Trump added her to the National Garden of American Heroes, a bizarre public monument to 244 “historically significant Americans” that his executive order states is slated to open by July 4, 2026. The garden was conceived as a response to the removal of Confederate monuments and intended “to peacefully transmit our great national story to future generations through newly commissioned monuments to American heroes.” I have no idea how Whitney Houston fits alongside Antonin Scalia, Thomas Jefferson, Billy Graham, and Ronald Reagan, although Whitney did a “Just Say No” for Nancy Reagan once, and appeared in the music video for “Stop the Madness,” an affiliated anti-drug campaign. I don’t know what her sculpture will look like, but according to Trump’s order, the statues “are silent teachers in solid form of stone and metal.”
What is she still teaching us? Surely about the confines of Black celebrity, even in death. When she died, her funeral was televised, an honor given to heads of state and Black celebrities (as an inductee into the National Garden of American Heroes, I guess she’s a little of both). At the funeral, someone stole a snap of her in the casket, the only place that was off-bounds to cameras. The image was sold to the National Enquirer. After that last invasion of privacy, her body was chauffeured to the cemetery in a gold-colored hearse, and she was entombed next to her father. Physically she was gone, but figuratively, she wouldn’t be buried for long. Now, she has a hologram likeness. Her estate licensed a tour, as well as a residency for the hologram in Las Vegas, where her family’s showbiz dreams first took off.
Between the distorted vanity table the tabloids mediated twice; of the glacé Whitney staring at herself in the mega-watt glass of her dressing room, a sequence staged in the “Greatest Love of All” music video; and her face multiplied on Seventeen magazine when she was the same age, it’s hard not to hear some blasted echo of “mirror, mirror on the wall” and what that old quote continues to say about female agency and the art of looking at oneself. But beyond sharing symbolism with Grimm’s tortured heroines and being elevated as such in popular culture, her life was not a fairy tale, and fairness, the quality at the heart of that famous question from “Snow White,” has really nothing to do with it. I prefer a different way to think about her, and in it she rebels in a way that does not require escaping into a man’s arms, one that shows her for how wily she actually was. She constantly undermined her public perception even as she traded on it. She was essentially a trickster figure, alternately shying away from cameras and performing for them, to invoke Barry Garron’s insights about her appearances on Being Bobby Brown. Fusing glamour with old wisdom, she was an Anansi in Giorgio Armani.
More than examples of her hypocrisy, I find these contradictions instances of subtle subversion. She sang anti-drug songs while privately plunging deeper into her addiction. Her stage name was her given name, but she called her corporation “Nippy, Inc.” just to remind people who was actually running the show. She was the daughter of a background singer mother who, bored by the repetition of Elvis’s Vegas revue, would “start throwing in obbligatos—improvised counter-melodies that floated up over the melody,” damn the script, and Elvis’s potential annoyance (he was actually charmed by her playfulness, and called her “Squirrelly” for her trouble). Whitney was like that, too: She was both a solo star and a background singer, and she let different parts of herself take turns at center stage. She allowed certain personality quirks to float up over the simple, anthemic ditty her public persona became, until the supporting vocals overwhelmed the main song. Regarding the tabloids and gossip press, she was sometimes a damsel-in-distress, dodging cameras and reporters, but she was also a bodyguard of her own reputation and privacy, unafraid to call out and mock the paparazzi or even a radio jock, like her one-time adversary Wendy Williams. In her complicated relationship with the “Whitney Houston” persona, she was Br’er Rabbit and tar baby both: the helplessly entangled trickster and, as Morrison imagined, the Black woman holding things together—in Whitney’s case her own life, her immediate family, and a growing media empire. Ultimately, she was at her core an incredibly syncretic figure, both Jadine and Son at once, leaning into white America and running away from it at the same time.
This complex makeup was never more on display than at the height of her fame, in 1990. At the end of the “I’m Your Baby Tonight,” video, which was released that year, she dances in front of a multi-paneled hall of mirrors, splintered aliases visible in the glass—a Beatnik Whitney with a turtleneck doing a Hepburn shuffle, a trio of Supreme-like chicks in fabulous wigs and feather boas, the androgynous Dietrich impersonation, and her ‘90s self in jeans and a leather jacket, bewitching a beau who’s spinning inside an enchanted fire. She eventually walks up to one panel, which she had been using to venture to different fantasy lands, slams her hand and cracks it. And then, like she predicted the end of her own story, she struts through the fractured mirror to some alternate reality. Or maybe it’s the reverse: the side she was on was the fake, mediated world, and she traveled to her real life. Wherever she is on the other side of that glass, she has more agency. There’s a motorcycle awaiting her on a dark street, and she hops on, driving in search of a mysterious destination. She stops to let a guy ride, and the faceless man jumps on the back of her seat. Her man situated, she looks back at the camera and smiles impishly, or like the Nippy character she’s nicknamed for. The couple glides into the night, knifing toward an open-end. Sure, she’s driving both of them, but she’s steering herself. Lickety-split, lickety-split.