In her prime, nobody could touch Whitney Houston‘s towering gospelized mezzo-soprano. Sadly, that once-glorious voice is showing signs of serious deterioration, decline and distress. And some worry the same could be said for the diva’s career.Globally renowned for her pristine pipes, Houston lately has been a target of stinging criticism and derision for a series of overseas concerts marked by awkward stage demeanor, meandering chatter and, most tarnishing, impaired vocals.
“A national scandal” is how London’s The Independent described the first stop on the U.K. leg of her Nothing But Love tour.
The April 13 show in Birmingham “should never have happened,” critic Simon Price wrote. “Her voice, seemingly about an octave deeper than the Whitney who sang the hits, is ragged and raw. … Between songs, wheezing and panting and occasionally breaking into a scary Wicked Witch of the West cackle, she plays for time.”
Similar pans plagued her in Dublin, London and Australia, where some fans booed and demanded refunds. The scathing notices have soured a meticulously plotted comeback and stained the legacy of one of pop’s finest singers.
Houston faced a friendlier crowd at Sunday’s show in Zurich, where fans reacted with “enthusiastic applause,” according to 20 Minuten. But the singer “has lost her radiance,” Aargauer Newspapers reported. “Her voice has just suffered too much.”
Sian Rayment wasn’t upset about spending $120 for a ticket to the London show, but “I wouldn’t go again,” he says. “You feel sorry for her more than anything else. … Everyone knows (her voice) is gone now. She could’ve stayed in the studio and recorded new albums, with no one the wiser.”
“They should pull the plug on the tour,” says Jim Farber, music critic for New York’s Daily News. “It’s an embarrassment to have her out there. It doesn’t sound like she has the stamina or range to deliver live at this point. And the excuses she keeps coming up with for her poor performances are starting to strain credibility.”
Trouble on the tour
Though hints surfaced earlier, evidence of Houston’s diminished powers mounted with promotion surrounding the Aug. 31 release of I Look to You, her first album in seven years. A Central Park performance for Good Morning America Sept. 1 was “a flat-out disaster,” Farber says. “I can’t believe she didn’t cancel or postpone it.”
Instead, Houston, 46, booked an Australian trek for February and the current European run, instigating a steady barrage of barbs and parries. After postponing four dates because of a respiratory infection, Houston blamed ensuing vocal glitches on allergies, air conditioning, talking too much and a temperamental upper range. No U.S. dates have been announced.
Her bungled vocals shocked fans who expected the smooth delivery they heard on the well-received Look, a glossy but sentimental pop-soul set that doesn’t test her range or vigor.
The superstar’s slump may be more humiliating than the tabloid-chronicled drug abuse and troubled marriage to Bobby Brown that kept her away from the stage and studio for much of the past decade, says Rolling Stone contributing editor Anthony DeCurtis.
“It’s one thing to stumble; it’s worse to become a punch line,” he says. Her career “may well be done, but I don’t believe you can say that definitively. America loves a redemption story, and she was in a position to deliver a really good one.”
But she failed the humility test on Oprah, he says. “People weren’t particularly satisfied … and started sharpening the knives. She has a high hill to climb, and it’s getting higher.”
Essence magazine entertainment director Cori Murray says all is not lost, but it’s going to take time for Houston to regain her vocal footing.
“There have been other singers that have overcome their drug pasts and have gone on to have great careers,” Murray says. “Natalie Cole comes to mind, as does Chaka Khan. If she can’t hit that note in I Will Always Love You like she used to, she has to find another way to sing it so that the audience can still feel the passion of the old Whitney.”
Houston’s record company, Sony BMG, and her public relations representatives at PMK-BNC did not respond to interview requests for this story.
A lofty legacy to maintain
Few have occupied a taller throne in pop royalty than Houston, who arrived 25 years ago with an impeccable pedigree (mother Cissy Houston, cousin Dionne Warwick, godmother Aretha Franklin), starlet looks and a preternatural voice capable of deftly delivering slick soul, dance-pop and soaring ballads.
She spawned armies of copycats, inspiring Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige, Christina Aguilera, Beyoncé and Jennifer Hudson. Her 1985 self-titled debut sold 13 million copies and yielded three of seven consecutive No. 1 hits.
The Bodyguard, the 1992 soundtrack with her signature take on Dolly Parton‘s I Will Always Love You, sold 17 million copies and is ranked 14th in album sales history by the Recording Industry Association of America, which places Houston fourth among top-selling female artists. She has collected six Grammys from 25 nominations.
Her clout has waned: Though I Look to You has sold a respectable 956,000 copies, it was shut out of Grammy consideration.
Yet fans rushed to buy her concert tickets, hoping to witness her former glory. At the first of three London shows, after Houston failed to scale the heights of I Will Always Love You, she assured the audience, “OK, hold on, it’s going to come.” It didn’t.
Afterward, while critical pens dripped venom, fervent fans reacted with disappointment and sympathy.
Jennie Connolly of Herne Bay, England, described the show as “a class act” but confessed that reports of booing at earlier concerts had lowered her expectations. “You could see she was struggling with her voice, but she was giving it her best,” she said.
Rebecca White of Norwich, England, who attended with her daughter, was “very disappointed” but remained a steadfast fan, buying a greatest-hits set the next day. “We wanted to go and give her a hug and tell her to try again later on in her life when she truly can sing again,” White said.
Can Houston sing sublimely again?
Maybe, says Eric Arceneaux, an R&B artist and vocal coach based in Washington. He has closely studied Houston’s singing habits for decades and first noticed deterioration and huskiness in the early ’90s, when she developed nodules after abusing her voice.
The cracks, deeper tone, shortness of breath and inability to reach those skyscraping notes can be explained by smoking, past drug use and a lack of proper training, he says.
“Whitney is immensely talented but technically deficient,” Arceneaux says. Houston’s tendency to push her “chest voice” into the stratosphere, rather than rely on the lighter, gentler “head voice,” may sound dazzling, “but it’s extremely damaging. It causes hoarseness, irritated vocal folds, calluses. It often requires surgery and rehabilitation.
“Whitney was known for a free, flute-y head voice, and now it’s just air,” he says. “That tells me something’s really wrong, because it’s usually the last thing to go.” Age is an unlikely culprit, he says, considering opera singers reach a prime ripeness in their 40s and “Patti LaBelle (at 65) is still hitting high notes.”
Customized vocal exercises and a healthy lifestyle could salvage Houston’s instrument. “The damage may not be fully reparable, but she could restore some clarity,” Arceneaux says.
Houston could scrap touring and maintain a recording career, Farber says. “With a voice that glorious, you could lose a lot and still have a lot left.”
DeCurtis envisions a successful rebound provided Houston agrees to relinquish the queenly status and adjust to less-demanding material.
“I see the problem more as psychological than physical,” he says. “You can’t be working in diva mode if you’re not delivering on the diva promise.
“Is it possible to sing a different kind of song when that bravura aspect is so central to who you are? She would have to see herself in a different way. Does she want to? That’s the question.”