When Whitney Houston’s longtime mentor Clive Davis started tracking down material for her comeback album, he called songwriter Diane Warren (Aerosmith’s ”I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” Celine Dion’s ”Because You Loved Me”). As it happened, Warren had written a confessional ballad called ”I Didn’t Know My Own Strength” with Houston in mind. ”I thought I could tell her story a bit,” says Warren. ”Everything that she’s gone through publicly.”
Houston, 46, has been through a lot. Once one of the world’s biggest stars (54 platinum certifications, 11 No. 1 smashes), she spent the first half of this decade bounding from one scandal to another: tabloid photos where she looked scarily underweight; bizarre behavior on her now ex-husband’s reality show, Being Bobby Brown; a contentious, highly public 2007 divorce. Then there was the infamous 2002 interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer where she admitted to using alcohol, pot, pills, and cocaine (but not, you’ll recall, crack—”Crack is wack”).
Singing Warren’s lyrics — ”I thought I’d never make it through/I had no hope to hold on to” — Houston has channeled those years of pain into one of the centerpieces of her first all-new album in seven years, I Look to You, due Aug. 31 (see review). ”What happened with Michael Jackson, that could have happened to Whitney,” says Warren. ”She could have not gotten clean. It doesn’t end well unless you change your life and fix yourself, which she did, thank God.”
Others who have recently worked with Houston describe a recharged, refocused artist. Alicia Keys says the singer’s mood was ”incredibly triumphant” when she recorded ”Million Dollar Bill,” a peppy song that Keys co-wrote. ”She’s in a great space,” says Keys. ”I feel that she’s more ready than ever to give everybody what they’ve been missing from her.”
But will that personal progress translate into sales? Even Davis, who discovered Houston in 1983, sounds cautious. ”I take nothing for granted,” he says. ”You don’t know if it’s the right time. You don’t come with any smug attitude. You’ve really got to earn it.”
So far, Houston hasn’t done that. The album’s first single, the R. Kelly-penned title track, debuted at No. 74 on Billboard‘s Hot 100 and then quickly dropped off. ”There’s a lot of negative history with Whitney,” says Dave Popovich, who hasn’t played ”I Look to You” on Cleveland radio stations Q104 and WDOK, where he’s program director. ”There’s a credibility issue. It’s going to take a while for the audience to warm back up and love her.” Fresher-sounding second single ”Million Dollar Bill” has a better shot, but it’s no sure thing. ”We’re dabbling with it to see the response,” says Tracy Austin, program director at Philadelphia Top 40 station Q102. ”It’s too soon to tell. There’s certainly some past baggage.”
Houston can count on at least one strong promotional push on television when she sits down with Oprah Winfrey on Sept. 14 for her first major interview since the Diane Sawyer disaster. And if she comes across as healthy, coherent, and repentant, her fans may very well return. ”Everyone loves a comeback,” says Stephen Hill, BET’s president of programming for music and specials. ”The sad thing about the human psyche is that we love to tear things down, and then when they’re at the bottom, we want to see them succeed again. Whitney Houston really falls into that.”
Additional reporting by Tanner Stransky