Sometimes I think that without dead soul singers I’d have nothing to write about. Sure, there’d always be the New York Giants and on rare occasion the New York Knicks, but those two franchises are well-covered and commented upon ad nausea by writers with far better access and data at their disposal.
As it stands, I stick to low-hanging fruit, which, I believe, should be the toil of any right-minded amateur blogger. My reporter’s fedora and credentials have long been hung up and even in their heyday they opened few doors that weren’t marked “Mens”.
And so this brings me to …
Whitney Houston will forever be remembered as a powerful voice and record-setting artist. The bizarre and disturbing spectacle of her later years were filled with public drug abuse, mental and physical abuse and little to no redemption. To maintain the theme: Whitney was Tina Turner without a second act.
To those of us ancient enough to have experienced her ascendency in the mid-late 80s and her pinnacle in the early 90s with the move The Bodyguard, Whitney’s death hits a deep blue note. Not only was she a larger than life talent and star, Houston was the soundtrack to many of our lives firsts. To wit:
First heartbreak: Where Do Broken Hearts Go, from the album Whitney
First dance with a girl: I Want to Dance With Somebody, also from Whitney
First unrequited Crush: I Will Always Love You, from The Bodyguard
It wasn’t just convenience. At that time we were inundated by the sad girl pop style. There were synths, saxophones and teenage singers everywhere one turned. Lisa Lisa was big at the time. Gloria Estefan was pulling at our heartstrings via Jon Cecada’s excellent pop songwriting. El Debarge was on a mustachioed mission to move your feet and shed a tear or two. Choices? Oh we had choices coming out of our pre-pubescent tear ducts. But Whitney was something else.
She was not quite a sex symbol, she was always a little too distant for that it seemed. Her posture and her tightly pulled hair on the cover of her album Whitney Houston made her seem guarded, like a finely trained debutante (which in retrospect would be borderline hilarious if not for and because of the cocaine-fueled crash and burn of her marriage to Bobby Brown). She was special. A delicate nymph from Jersey and if you touched her a little too roughly, if you sullied the raw, pure manna of her natural gift she might disappear entirely or melt in your hand like cotton candy.
At least that’s the way I thought of her. The other guys on the playground were less … gentlemanly about it.
To me she was something else—something more than a pop star. Her sentimental and touching hit The Greatest Love of All was something right out of the ether of the civil rights and feminist movements distilled to a simple, beautiful and ultimately impactful message. She managed to do more with four minutes and 47 seconds of music than Jesse Jackson could in 20 years: remind us all that to love ourselves and to teach children to love themselves is the first step in creating a better us.
Even now, when I see the tousled hair and beaming smile on the cover of Whitney it seems impossible that the bright-eyed teenage phenomenon on the cover could come to such a bad end.
Much will be said about the need to discard the public decay of her life in the coming days and weeks. Many pundits, talking heads and vapid stars will try to impress upon various interviewers the importance of remembering her for her gift. But I prefer to remember Whitney’s whole life.
From the early rallying cry of The Greatest Love of All (a cry that is desperately needed for the boys of the country—but that’s another story) that entreated us all to think bigger, to be better. To the sad and powerful ballads like Didn’t We Almost Have it All and to her televised spiritual and psychic decay, Whitney’s story was in many ways all of our stories. It certainly seems that way these days doesn’t it? Our politics are bitter and vicious as a crack-addicted pop star, our once promising national mood has given way to a palpable cynicism, violence and increasing paranoia. Sometimes, drugs don’t seem like such a crazy option when you think about it.
She was a singular spirit, who’s biggest loss (at least in my opinion) was that she came to stardom in an age of synthesizers and keyboards, missing out on the muscular horns, electric guitars and choirs of earlier times and different traditions. Sounds that would have elevated her chillingly muscular voice. Instead, that magnificent instrument was backed by a series of 1s and 0s calculating pitch and oscillations. I’ve always liked to imagine what she would have sounded like backed by Kermit Ruffins. Sadly, we’ll never get to hear that.
Whitney reached down from a place in the sky with that gift and touched me and everyone I’ve ever known.
For that, she will forever be beautiful, warts and all.