How will anyone know?

Like many people my age, I was very sad to hear of Whitney Houston’s death. It seems ridiculous being really upset all week about the premature death of someone you never even knew,  but the voice is so familiar, and such a long background soundtrack to people’s lives, that you can’t help feeling like something which touched your life is gone forever.

Didn't We Almost Have It All
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When I was nine, my best friend Vanessa used to do these little dance routines in her living room. She’d always pick Kylie Minogue’s version of Locomotion. I never particularly liked it, and eventually I got to pick my own track, so I picked How Will I Know. The voice was so special, and the simple lyrics appealed to me, even though at the time I had no idea why people said “he loves me, he loves me not”, when they picked petals off daisies. So we did this dance routine, which consisted mainly of alternating legs on the spot, followed by flicking arms out sideways and trying to imitate the head flick at the same time. I’m pretty sure it looked like a malfunctioning robot. Vanessa even had a tight pink lycra skirt like the one Whitney was wearing in the video. It looked a tad better on Whitney’s long, pin-thin legs.

In many ways the arrangements she was given were at odds with her voice, being neither the Britney Spears style of snappy, bass-heavy backing tracks that beef up the pop princess’s little voices, nor having the simplicity to allow the voice to develop depth. I hated Greatest Love of All, and all those other syrupy tracks with keyboard backing, although recently I’ve rediscovered So Emotional. I was never a massive fan until I heard My Love is Your Love, which is still my go-to song for a slightly melancholy drive. It is no coincidence that the songs with almost no backing track were by far the best.

I was 14 when The Bodyguard came out, and I loved every minute of it; it ticked all the boxes of what teenage girls aspire to, even if the bit with the samurai sword was a little weird – the clunky symbolism of self-sacrifice somewhat passed me by at that age. The thing in the film that really struck me even at the time was how thin she was. She looked so rakish that I got a little paranoid about my own normal sized thighs. The scene where she is going running in leggings shows legs which are like matchsticks all the way up. I sometimes wonder whether the drug addiction just spiralled out of taking ephedrine or whatever other slimming pills she probably used. Even “normal” parties are full of people telling you that cocaine is the answer to all your weight problems. I have never taken any notice of this advice, but then I’m not scrutinised in the glare of the world’s media every day. And I don’t have nasty old French alcoholics telling me “I want to f*** you” on TV shows: I watched  the clip of Serge Gainsbourg telling an 18-year old Whitney Houston that, and the poor girl looked so humiliated. All she’d done was go on the show, sing Greatest Love of All, and then gets this repulsive old man saying disgusting things to her, while the chat show host tries to smooth things over, but quite obviously finds it absolutely hilarious.

No one knows why some people succumb to drugs, and some don’t. Drug addicts are assumed to be weak people, and this always seems to be given as the primary reason to judge them. We always say they’re “throwing it all away”, “wasting their talent”, implying that they have control over their addiction and have made an active choice to take drugs, while simultaneously criticising them for losing any perspective on the usual priorities of friends, family and professional commitments. I’ve really no idea what serious addiction is like, or why it happens, so how can I sit and judge an addict?

I’ve had some crazy obsessions in my life, like the time I was working in a factory, and it was so soul-destroying that I became completely addicted to watching Baywatch when I got home. I was asked to do an extra shift once, and hid in the toilets in tears because it would mean missing an episode. I’ve also variously been obsessed with running, rowing, climbing, boys at school, ten letter words (I made huge lists of them when I was 11), Ben Affleck, crochet, my violin, chocolate, wine, Lord of the Rings, and sudoku. It’s just that none of those is particularly self-destructive, apart from at one point perhaps the wine and the running.

People take ghoulish pleasure in the nadir of drug addiction, wanting to read about the fall from grace, to see the pictures of some beautiful and talented celebrity all ashen-faced and emaciated. The press reports dress this up as “concern”, while really driving home the message that this person is a basket case. I guess to a certain extent it’s natural to want a superhumanly talented person to be human on some level, to have some flaw or weakness that makes them likeable, but it’s still not for us to judge.

The drug addicts I know are high achievers who feel the weight of expectation most keenly, precisely because they will go the furthest. It’s almost as if success scares them, because if you’ve reached a great pinnacle through both skill and effort, you are expected to keep making the effort to stay there. And then maybe you start doubting whether you deserve your success, and start to wonder whether it’s all worth it.

It’s all very sad, but I don’t think she threw anything away. She  didn’t want it any more,  so I’m just happy that she lived at all.

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