Whitney's world: Troubled superstar's death and dark side of music biz


WE MAY never know if Whitney Houston died by accident or intent - drowning in a bathtub Saturday afternoon at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. While there's much speculation that she was under the influence of anti-depressants and alcohol, the coroner's official report won't be out for weeks.

What we do know is that Whitney Houston couldn't possibly have picked a more opportune moment to make goodbyes and deliver a brutal statement about the dark side of the music biz - how the stresses of the game can drive a person to bad habits and spiraling self-destruction.

When discovered and pronounced dead in her hotel bathroom on Saturday, many big wheels from the music industry were downstairs awaiting Houston's performance at a bash hosted by her mentor/svengali, Clive Davis.

And just 24 hours later, pretty much the entire "industry" would be gathering to celebrate (and mourn) at "music's biggest night," the 54th Annual Grammy Awards, streamed and broadcast so that the whole world could be watching.

Put On a Happy Face: Clearly, the powers that be tried to put on a good face at these occasions. Last night's performance-clogged TV gala was turned into a "celebration" through the "healing power of music that brings us all here," announced host LL Cool J, after his opening prayer for Houston.

But how could the singer's most public and tragic fall from grace not sober many celebrants?

Jeez, the tragedy even threatened to diminish the Grammy victory sweep for this year's soul-pop smash, Adele, and her 17-million-selling "21." Let us not forget that Adele - while almost single-handedly reviving the music industry - blew out her voice in the process and had to retire for several months of recuperation. This gig can kill you, even if you do watch out. But Adele sure sounded fine last night, "Rolling in the Deep."

Also scoring multiple awards - the garage-rockin' Foo Fighters, electro-dance breakthrough Skrillex, oddly missing-in-action rappers Kanye West and Jay-Z, country darlin' Taylor Swift, standards-bearer Tony Bennett and chamber-folkies The Civil Wars and Bon Iver - the latter a six-year vet who kinda "robbed" Nicki Minaj for the "Best New Artist" honor.

Spin Cycle: The strategy for spinning Houston's death into a "positive" started at the Saturday-night soiree hosted by Clive Davis. The former Arista (and Columbia) Records CEO, who'd led the mid-1980s transformation of Houston from a shy young fashion model and Sunday-kinda church/backup singer, remembered her at his party as a "beautiful person" with "a talent beyond compare." And he rationalized that, with her trouper nature, "Whitney would have wanted the music to go on."

(Hope it wasn't Davis who persuaded Houston to tour again after the release of her 2009 album, "I Look To You," even though her voice was shot and only salvaged on the recording by massive application of "Pro-Tools." In concert, Houston was thereafter reduced to apologies - and scathing reviews - at every show she didn't cancel. Talk about a bad management call!)

Later into the Davis-hosted bash, entertainer Tony Bennett got to the heart of the matter, name-checking several talents brought down by substance abuse.

"First it was Michael Jackson, then Amy Winehouse" (with whom Bennett recorded the Grammy-nominated "Body and Soul," Ms. Winehouse's final studio session). "Now the magnificent Whitney Houston. Let's legalize drugs, like Amsterdam. Its a very sane city now." (Bennett has to be the youngest 85-year-old on Earth!)

Flash Forward: At yesterday afternoon's pre-telecast (though Web-streamed) ceremony where the bulk of Grammy awards were actually given out, co-hosts Dave Koz and MC Lyte didn't wait a minute before recognizing the elephant in the room. "We'd both like to acknowledge the great legacy of Ms. Whitney Houston," said jazzman Koz. "She's in our hearts and minds, in every music-maker tonight."

Even classical vocal Grammy winner (and Philadelphia Academy of Vocal Arts grad) Joyce DiDonato seconded the emotion, arguing for contemporary-minded divas with the thought that "we need more Whitney Houstons."

Presenter Jimmy Jam reflected that "any time when someone passes away the family gathers to tell stories, laugh . . . with a little bit of mourning, a little bit of celebrating. This is our family so we're going to do it as best we can."

While Bennett would hold his tongue when called to the pre-telecast stage to claim two Grammys, he brought the parents of his "Pop Duo/Group Collaboration" co-winner along, allowing Mitch Winehouse to connect the dots between three now-deceased talents who'd each suffered from emotional and substance abuse: "Long live Whitney Houston. Long live Amy Winehouse. Long live Etta James. There's a beautiful girl band up in heaven."

Change Of Heart: On initially hearing of Houston's death, prime-time Grammy Awards show producer Ken Ehrlich reacted that it would be "premature" and distasteful to jump into full mourning mode for the six-time Grammy-winning artist, while the body was still warm.

But there was no denying the immediate outpouring of affection for Houston from fans, the media and fellow stars inspired by her sturdy styling and cross-over success as an actress. (BTW - Sony Pictures said yesterday that a remake of "Sparkle," in which Houston acts and sings a couple of new songs, will still come out on schedule in August.)

Grammy best-album nominee Rihanna tweeted on Saturday that it "felt so strange" being at show rehearsals when the word on Whitney came out. Mariah Carey was "heartbroken and in tears over the shocking death of my friend."

So, by early yesterday morning the prime-time show script had been altered, starting with LL Cool J's opening prayer and introduction of a Houston performance snippet and much later coming full circle with the trilling performance of "I Will Always Love You" by another Houston devotee, Jennifer Hudson, which capped the annual Grammy montage of "fallen musical notables" (Clarence Clemons, Phoebe Snow, Philadelphia-spawned songwriter Jerry Ragavoy, et al.).

When It Rains, It Pours: Adding insult to injury, viewers would also be sobered by Alicia Keys' and Bonnie Raitt's "Sunday Kind of Love" tribute to Etta James, the belting blues mama (and heroin survivor) who passed away last month.

The best R&B album award (to Chris Brown) was prefaced with a nod to another recently taken notable, Gil Scott Heron. That landmark poet/jazz singer was famed for "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" and a bad crack habit.

And if all that didn't bring you down, how about watching Glen Campbell one more time, knowing that "The Rhinestone Cowboy" is failing from Alzheimer's?

Sometimes it's better to not keep up with the gossip columns.