"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Two weeks ago, a story by Los Angeles celebrity journalist Nick Papps began, “It’s hard to believe that the drugged, dazed woman staring out from [an accompanying] picture was once one of the most popular singers in the world … But today that woman, Whitney Houston, 42, is just another crack head.”
The dim assessment came in response to tabloids that on March 29 printed photos of what is supposedly Houston’s Atlanta bathroom, littered with crack pipes, cocaine-coated spoons, cigarette butts, Budweiser cans and garbage. The photos were taken, and sold to the magazines, by Houston’s sister-in-law, who provided an accompanying tale of the singer’s cracked-out habits, from hallucinating violent demons, to biting and hitting herself, putting her hand through walls, and locking herself away to smoke rock cocaine and pleasure herself with an apparently prodigious collection of vibrators. Speaking about the mess on Fox’s “The O’Reilly Factor,” Billboard executive editor Tamara Conniff said, “I think that she was a really well-manicured diva star and she just turned a little ghetto.”
Whitney Houston has sold more than 120 million records. Her first album, “Whitney Houston,” sold 24 million copies in 1985, becoming the highest-selling debut for a female solo artist. She was the first American singer to have seven consecutive No. 1 hits. She won six Grammys and 21 American Music Awards; her 1992 cover of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” was the highest-selling single by a woman in pop music history. But her impact went deeper than that: Houston’s was one of the only black faces that white girls like me who grew up in the 1980s ever saw in magazines in our dentist’s office or in video rotation on early Af-Am-light MTV. For many black girls, she was the only young female role model presented in lily-white teen bibles or mainstream entertainment who looked anything like them.
But 20 years after her record-breaking debut, and a decade-long dominance of the pop charts, Whitney Houston has been reduced to this: “just another crack head,” “a really well-manicured diva” who “just turned a little ghetto.”
Hearing someone who mattered to me as a child, who was famous in a daily, first-name-only kind of way, whose voice and face were so very beautiful, get tossed away so unceremoniously was jarring to me. Yes, jarring, even after a decade spent watching her career circle the drain. Listening to the ugly overtones of her dismissal — “crackhead” just half an epithet away from “crack whore” — I found myself wanting to blame everything that’s wrong with American culture. I wanted to point out that successful black women get punished, that women’s entertainment careers get manipulated to conform to standards they can’t maintain, that Houston’s thunderous slide was surely precipitated by racism and sexism and a celebrity machine that chews people up and leaves them for dead. Literally. In 2001, the New York Post reported that MTV has collected B-roll for a Houston obit, an honor normally reserved for geriatrics.
So I called the kinds of people who could shed light on these possibilities. And they did. But in talking and thinking about Houston’s story, walking past newsstands where her shiny, bloated face stared up from the tabloid covers, I realized that part of what’s so sad about this particular pop culture tragedy is that racism and sexism and celebrity culture only went so far in destroying this woman; the rest she seems to have done herself.
“She couldn’t have been a bigger or more beloved star, and she was really the first black America’s sweetheart,” said Janice Min, editor of Us Weekly, about Houston’s mid-’80s profile. “Now she’s not even worthy of ‘The Surreal Life.’ She’s fallen below the entertainment C-list level. It’s almost too tragic to deal with.” Perhaps the surest sign that Houston has essentially ceased to matter is that Min’s magazine, whose pages burble and hiss with every plodding plot point in every celebrity soap opera, did not run a story on the Enquirer’s “Inside Whitney’s Crackden!” scoop.
“We kind of ignored it,” Min explained, adding that she decided against covering it only at the last minute. First of all, the story was one hell of a celebrity bummer. “It’s a little tawdry for an Us audience, where celebrities have a nice shiny veneer on them. This is a little hardcore,” said Min. “You turn to celebrities for escape and voyeurism. When their problems are worse than yours, then you don’t want to read about them.” And there’s no worse buzz kill than a predictable one. “The interesting thing was that when you saw the pictures, you almost wanted to be more surprised than you were,” Min continued. “There are a few celebrity stories that filter into the white noise category: Paris Hilton breaking up with a boyfriend, Nicole Richie looking stick thin, and on a much more tragic level, Whitney Houston using drugs. This has been an ongoing plotline for a long time.”
It certainly has. Houston has been missing concerts for years. She was booted from the Oscars in 2000 for blowing off rehearsal. When she does perform, she often sings badly and looks consumptive. She’s been in and out of rehab, was arrested for marijuana possession in 2002, and admitted to Diane Sawyer that same year that she “partied.” Her husband of 14 years, Bobby Brown, has spent time in jail for drunk driving, failure to pay child support, and breaking parole by assaulting his wife in 2003. Houston hasn’t released an album since 2003; the most exposure she’s had in recent years has been “Being Bobby Brown,” the train wreck of a reality show she and her husband headlined last year.
But all that doesn’t change who she used to be. It doesn’t change the fact that many women in their 30s and late 20s can still remember the 17-year-old fashion model as one of the first women of color to grace the cover of Seventeen in 1980. It wasn’t hard to suss out the ways that America’s historical anxiety about black femininity and sexuality was manifesting itself during the ’80s: These were the years when Vanessa Williams, the first black Miss America, was dethroned for having been photographed naked, and when Lisa Bonet, aka Denise Huxtable, was savaged for costarring in the kinky movie “Angel Heart” with Mickey Rourke. If young black women were going to be in the public (white) eye, they had to be pure and unthreatening, especially sexually.
For a long time, Houston fit the bill. And while there’s lots to be said about the lengths she, or her P.R. people, may have gone to to make her a palatable crossover sensation, there was no question that her roots were deep in African-American musical tradition. Slick and overproduced though they may have been, Houston’s songs were soul and R&B ballads; her voice was huge, and straight out of her Newark, N.J., church choir. She was the product of music royalty, daughter of gospel star Cissy Houston, who sang backup for Aretha Franklin and Elvis Presley. Franklin is Whitney’s godmother; Dionne Warwick is her cousin.
Houston’s run is often described in shorthand now: She sang “the ‘Bodyguard’ song” (“I Will Always Love You”) and “The Greatest Love of All,” a tune popular at sixth-grade graduations everywhere. But those are the tip of the iceberg; between 1985 and 1997, she slammed out hit after hit after hit, from peppy dance tunes to ocean-liner-size ballads: “All at Once,” “How Will I Know,” “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” “You Give Good Love,” “Saving All My Love,” “So Emotional,” “Where Do Broken Hearts Go,” “Didn’t We Almost Have It All,” “One Moment in Time,” “Run to You,” “I’m Every Woman.” Houston’s pipes could shake the stereo, make you shiver even when you knew the song was schmaltzy.
It’s hard to convey now, in a more diffuse media landscape, the intensity of radio and video play she got. I “grew out” of my Whitney fandom around puberty and haven’t sat down to listen to her in 15 years; while writing this, I downloaded some tunes and found that I still knew every word. That’s not just a mark of early devotion; it’s a sign of what was her inescapable ubiquity.
“Whitney Houston was probably the most important African-American singer between Aretha Franklin and Mary J. Blige. For a decade or so, she was probably the most important black female singer out there,” said Craig Werner, chairman of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s African-American studies department and author of “A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race and the Soul of America.” Werner also pointed me to the work of music journalist Danny Alexander, who has argued that the untold story of black music in the past two decades — lost amid the attention showered on rap and hip-hop — was the emergence of the black female vocalist as the most powerful force on pop charts.
In an e-mail, Alexander explained that while it wasn’t “all about” Houston, there was “a sea change that follows her initial success. Black women, in particular, [including] extraordinary vocal groups such as En Vogue, TLC, SWV … Destiny’s Child, but also Mariah Carey, Toni Braxton, Mary J. Blige and others in line for Whitney’s undisputed throne, played the largest role in chart history as talent to be reckoned with … it’s unlike anything that happened before.” According to Alexander, Houston and her peers, including Madonna, Janet Jackson and Tina Turner, “carved out a space for women to come close to dominating pop radio in the early ’90s — as not simply producers’ pawns … but serious artists demanding artistic control and respect and, in Whitney’s case in particular, with a vocal talent to rival anyone else on the radio.”
But if Houston was helping to spearhead a music industry revolution, that revolution was concurrent with tectonic shifts of another kind. Houston was a product — literally — of MTV. And that meant that she was packaged within an inch of her life — pinched and prodded and tweaked to look a certain way. Check out the cover of her first album. Houston was 21; her face looks about 14. But she’s done up like a piece of Grecian statuary, her hair pulled into a severe bun, a string of pearls around her neck. She looks unrealistically pristine.
“She was like the black Princess Di — always in a gown; beyond gorgeous,” said Danyel Smith, former editor in chief of Vibe who has profiled and spent time with Houston over the years. Smith observed that in the mainstream press, many female stars are motivated to present themselves — or others choose to represent them — as rebel bad girls who defy prudish expectation and wholesome good looks by staying out late, drinking too much and sneaking off to bathroom stalls with Wilmer Valderrama. Back in the mid-’80s, Houston was defying a different set of cultural expectations — the ones applied to black girls — to a much different effect. She was presented to us as youthful feminine perfection: all sugar and spice and poofy dresses, a solid rearing in the church, a close family. Her unraveling “is not the same thing as a bad girl getting worse,” said Smith. “It’s a good girl seemingly tumbling to the bottom of a ravine. We have to watch, but it’s really not pretty, and not entertaining.”
Houston was famously guarded about her private life. If there was the sense that everything we saw about her as a young performer — her family, her faith, her clothes — was what we were meant to see, then at the least that publicity lockdown presented her (or someone) as in control. After her marriage and the birth of daughter Bobbi Kristina in 1993, the media began to get glimpses, with the missed performances and weight loss, that something was amiss. There were rumors that she was doing drugs with her husband, who often was assumed to be the catalyst behind her self-destruction.
This loosening of her grip on her public presentation seemed a sign that Houston’s private life was in free fall. In the now-infamous 2002 interview with Diane Sawyer, Brown arrived uninvited, an irritating presence whose desire to control his wife, or to keep her from emerging from whatever private universe they inhabited, seemed to emanate from his pores. But Houston didn’t appear to mind. She came off as defensive and vaguely unpleasant as she crowed to Sawyer that she made “too much money to ever smoke crack.” “Crack is cheap,” she said. “Crack is whack.”
Her raucous denials served not only to make her sound like someone who might well have done crack, but also like someone who was drawing invisible and unattractive class and race lines around herself. No matter how strung-out she was willing to look on television, this was a message she seemed determined to control: I’m not that kind of drug user, she was saying. Not the kind who’s poor. And while it was clear that whatever kind of person she was in 2002, it bore little resemblance to the young woman on the cover of Seventeen; it was hard to tell whether her new, unlikable presentation was any more authentic than the clean-scrubbed package. “I watched with hope that I would see something in her face that was real,” said Smith of the interview. “But I don’t know what her real is. And I’ve spent time with her a couple of times over the years. Like the best and biggest pop stars, she is a very veiled persona.”
The veil dropped more dramatically last year, when Houston appeared on her husband’s Bravo reality series “Being Bobby Brown.” The show dealt intimately with the action taking place (and not taking place) in Houston’s lower intestine, and was peppered with lines from the former “black Princess Di” like, “I’ve got to poop a poop!” It was disgusting — not because of the scatological humor, which actually seemed refreshingly real — but because of the context in which that humor played to the scads of viewers who made the show one of Bravo’s biggest hits. Houston and Brown didn’t look right; they didn’t appear to be well, or particularly sane. And so it seemed that the message was not, “Look at the successful celebrities who, like real people, talk about farting,” but rather, “Laugh at these strung-out has-beens who can’t help but degrade what’s left of their image by talking about their bowel movements on camera.”
Smith was clear that she doesn’t know what to make of the story behind the current set of drug-den photographs: “If it’s old, if it’s new, if it’s Bobby Brown, if it’s drugs, if it’s fatigue, if it’s depression, if it’s freedom; we don’t know what it is at all.” But she also said that she could bring herself to watch only one episode of the reality show. “It seemed so tragic and broken that I just couldn’t take it.”
Perhaps the most surprising twist of “Being Bobby Brown” was that it turned a lot of assumptions about just what had happened to Houston on their ears. There had been a pretty simple imaginative narrative about the singer’s decade-long decline: that as a victim of her own early success, she had been pushed into a public marriage to an abusive man, perhaps been badly treated and forced to live a lie, and fallen into drug addiction and depression at his hands. Who knows — maybe there’s truth in that story arc. But what “Being Bobby Brown” made clear was that however the Houston-Brown marriage has developed over the years, it is now, if not blissful, then at the very least functionally codependent. And more than that, that Brown is not the only bully in the family.
“That was a show where you probably saw more pathology than you needed to,” said Us Weekly’s Min. “I think a lot of people stopped feeling sorry for Whitney Houston after that show. It looked like she had the upper hand in that relationship. Where people had probably assumed Bobby was the thug, I think they began to consider that maybe Whitney was the thug.” Houston was pushy and mean and dismissive, and she looked physically wrecked: from her waxy skin to straw-dry hair to her oddly protruding belly. “And,” Min paused before pointing out, “she looked like probably not the best mother in the world. In America you can be forgiven for a lot of things. But not being a fully engaged mother is a sin.” Here, she recalled a “Being Bobby Brown” episode in which Houston locked young Bobbi Kristina out of her bedroom so that she and Brown could have sex. “People were shocked by that,” said Min. “Especially coming from America’s former pop princess.”
But isn’t part of the demonization of black female sexuality about our attitudes and assumptions more than it is about reality? Houston’s meteoric rise, after all, had occurred during what Wisconsin professor Werner described as “an extremely chaotic period in African-American culture” during which the class-carving effects of Reaganomics dissolved black communities, the church lost its role as a centralizing organizing structure, and drug wars ripped through black neighborhoods. “The cultural moorings that had held black life together during all kinds of turmoil and suffering in some way fell apart,” said Werner. If Houston had become unmoored by her early success, he hypothesized, she might not have found the communal support she once would have. “Celebrity culture replaced the culture of community that had nurtured soul music and early rock ‘n’ roll,” he said. “It was a perfect storm of how to screw up somebody’s life.”
The circumstances of Houston’s trajectory were in some ways reassuringly stereotypical. “The media particularly likes this kind of story because it plays into stereotypes of black degradation,” said Werner. “The specific squalor of the Whitney Houston crack story, that part of it is racialized. There’s the idea that crack is a black drug. Which is horseshit. But look at how we love the stories of black people doing it: Remember Marion Barry in Washington? We like this because it’s a ghetto story. And it shows no matter how high they rise, this is how they all fall.”
But while Houston may have steered her way into a perfect storm of unjust racial expectation, she was still at the wheel. And she has had ample offers of rescue, including, by her own admission, family interventions. While writing this piece, I spoke to a friend who strenuously argued that Houston’s present circumstances have little to do with race. If distant engagement with celebrity life can be compared to friendship, she said, then Houston is the friend on whom we have finally been forced to give up. We did gasp with horror over her skeletal appearance, were saddened by her no-show concert appearances, shaken by tales of spousal abuse and drugging. But she has sworn she’d get help and then failed to do so too many times, returned again and again to the abusive boyfriend, gotten clean only to relapse, stolen money from our wallets — if minutes spent poring over dismaying People photo spreads count as currency — until we eventually told her never to call us again. Moreover, mentioning Robert Downey Jr. by way of comparison, my friend said that if Houston had been able to smoke crack and still produce compelling product — hit songs — we would have forgiven her anything, regardless of color.
Downey is a fair example of down-and-out celebrity (at least temporarily) redeemed. One that’s even more apt would be Mariah Carey, who went all-out bonkers and still managed a glorious return. Or Courtney Love, an addled and unwell figure who has been pilloried even more brutally than Houston, but who has managed to retain a claim on some fuzzy corner of our hearts. Houston has no such fuzzy place. At least in the mainstream (white) press.
But, Danyel Smith reminded me, that doesn’t mean that everyone’s given up on her. “When you say, ‘How did we discard her so quickly?’ ‘We’ is too big a word,” said Smith. “I don’t think the African-American community has discarded her. There is equal parts sadness and on some levels disgust, and I hesitate to speak for every African-American like we’re all joined hand-in-hand. But I do think that however misguided, there is a huge hope for her recovery. And there is still a deep and abiding love for the Whitney we knew on those first three or four albums.”
So maybe that’s all I want: for the mainstream press to save Whitney from the tabloid and reality-TV haze that seems to have enveloped and obscured everything about who she was before. The tragedy here — in addition to the loss of a talent and the apparent illness of a once-healthy woman — is the way that loss and illness have sucked dry our well of respect for someone who made an artistic and social impact. Maybe in an extremely twisted way, MTV’s obituary B-roll is the right idea. What we need to be doing is not laughing, or looking away. What we need to be doing is mourning.
Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.More Rebecca Traister.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)