As the results of Whitney Houston’s toxicology report surfaced late last week, revealing that she had cocaine in her system and that the drug contributed to her death, my mind kept returning to one particular conversation I’d had with the woman Oprah Winfrey appropriately dubbed “the voice.”
It was just weeks before her second film, Waiting to Exhale, was set to hit movie theaters and Houston was in full “sell it to the media and the masses” mode. She rattled off the reasons she loved a movie about strong female friendships and how much she relished the notion of four black women sharing screen time as well as their stories of pain in love and life.
Like thousands of other women in the '90s, I looked forward to the film based on the popular Terry McMillan novel of the same name. But in the end what I actually loved most was the melancholy soundtrack from the movie. The bestselling album featured performances from Mary J. Blige, Toni Braxton, Brandy, and, of course, “the voice." Houston graced the soundtrack with several memorable tracks including the title single “Exhale’’ (the “Shoop Shoop’’ song), but none had more meaning for me than Houston’s achingly heartfelt “Why Does It Hurt So Bad?’’
Sitting in her New York hotel room I gently steered Houston’s thoughts away from her acting career and back to a subject I ‘m sure she thought she had little need to discuss at length by now—her music. I mentioned “Why Did It Hurt So Bad?’’ and explained how much I enjoyed the song and what her powerful yet elegant vocals brought to every word. As I explained how the song resonated, Houston closed her eyes and nodded her head with what seemed to be a knowing smile. After a few seconds she told me that her friend producer and songwriter Babyface had penned the tune for her years before, but she wanted no part of it and turned it down. I was baffled at the how the veteran songstress hadn’t been able to see how beautifully suited the tune was for her from the moment she heard it. Then Houston broke it down. She said, “I couldn’t sing ‘Why Does It Hurt So Bad?' before because I hadn’t hurt that bad when Babyface gave it to me. I needed to hurt that bad to sing that song.’’
That was in 1995 and I suspect from that day until she died on Feb. 11, Houston hurt that bad a lot. Watching her daughter Bobbi Kristina and her sister Pat Houston speak about Houston with Oprah Winfrey a few weeks ago only validated my thoughts. Pat Houston spoke of “Whitney chasing a dream and looking for love in all the wrong places.” The reports that surfaced shortly after her death told of a woman desperate to find some semblance of her former self after years at the top and almost as many years at the very bottom. Through detrimental actions of her own, she’d lost her “voice,” and that surely sent her deeper into a spiral of depression and unhappiness. Her marriage to Bobby Brown, deemed toxic from the start, ended exactly as many suspected it would. One good friend of Houston’s told me the end of her marriage crushed her completely and only increased her need for anyone and anything that could make her feel better.
While family members told Oprah that Houston hadn’t been using drugs prior to her death, the toxicology report offer a different version of events. Anyone knows that the 48-year-old woman doing handstands at the hotel pool and skipping around the hotel poking her tongue out at guests probably did have an illegal substance in her blood stream. It’s understandable that her family wanted to do for her in death what they couldn’t do in life—protect her. But Houston doesn’t need it now. Her struggle with the drug demons that followed her for most of her life and career is over. So is the need for people to deny what Houston herself admitted to repeatedly in her later years.
Sources close to the family say that Los Angeles police are investigating who provided the drugs to Houston as well as who may have swept her room clean of them just after her death. Of course the police have a job to do, but the Houston family and most of her fans already have the answers they need. Discovering who gave the singer the drugs or who might have flushed them down the toilet will change little at this point.
Houston knew the dangers of drug use, but she didn’t have the strength to fight it. In reality, the iconic singer’s life wasn’t so very different from those of many others who are tortured, lonely, and dependent on illegal vices to help them get through the day. Her battle was just very public, but her end no more tragic.