It has been one week since my oldest (in terms of duration of the friendship, not in terms of HIS age) and bestest (see above for duration of the friendship) friend (apart from my wife), Mark, texted me to tell me that Whitney Houston had passed away. I do not know this for sure, but I suspect I am the first person he texted, or possibly the second, after his sister, Christy. He knew I would want to know.
Since then, the airwaves have been full of tributes to Whitney Houston. My younger children have no idea who she was, and my older ones are asking what anyone younger than I am asking: “What’s the deal with Whitney Houston?” That’s because they know her only as a slightly unhinged personality from reality TV, or as a punchline to a Saturday Night Live skit. They only know the post-Bobby-Brown, post-drugs, post-“crack-is-whack” Whitney. And that’s a shame.
I wasn’t what you’d call a rabid Whitney Houston fan. In fact, I have never owned any of her recordings, on LP, CD, or any other format. I did see her live, though: it was during her 1987 “Moment of Truth” tour. She sang to a packed-out BJCC Coliseum. And yes, she sang: she did not lip-sync. And every song was in a different arrangement from her albums. Her own arrangements. No auto-tune. Whitney Houston was the real deal. Sure, she showed her Gospel roots by throwing in some melismas, but never to the extent that they obscured the melody: certainly nothing like the hundreds of Whitney wannabes we’ve been subjected to over the years on American Idol, The X-Factor, etc. Whitney’s voice, before her lifestyle choices took their toll on it, was incredibly rich, incredibly powerful, and incredibly moving. When I saw her perform, she had just turned 24: I had just turned 20.
To anyone who had a pulse in the mid ’80s to early ’90s, Whitney Houston’s music was a part of the soundtrack of everyday life. Everyone, whether they wanted to admit it or not, liked Whitney Houston. My DAD liked Whitney Houston: my Dixie-Gospel-Caravan-loving Dad liked Whitney Houston. I remember him singing along to “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” every time it came on the radio or TV, which, if you know my Dad, is saying something. I worked at Musicland in Brookwood Village during the Christmas break of 1987, and we sold a dizzying number of copies of her sophomore LP, “Whitney.” I remember in particular one mom and her 9- or 10-year-old daughter who came in, asking for the new Whitney Houston album. I showed them where it was and handed them a copy. The mom asked, “Does this have ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’ on it?” I assured her it did. Wanting to make absolutely sure, they flipped the album over and looked at the track listing. When they saw the song listed on the album cover, they looked at each other, smiled, and then I don’t know who squealed louder: the mom or her little girl. I smiled too. Whitney Houston had that effect on people.
From her song “One Moment in Time” for the 1988 Olympics to her rendition of the National Anthem in 1991 (during the Gulf War), her position as America’s musical sweetheart was sealed. I think part of the “deal” with Whitney Houston–the fact that people are talking about her death so much–is not only that she was “our” age (although that does make it strange), and not even only because of the place her music had in everyone’s everyday lives during that time, but because of what she became later. She lost her voice, both figuratively and literally. We see her as she was in her youth, in her prime, and then we see where she was when she died, and how she died, and we wonder “What if?”
Illegal drugs ruined her life, but a legal one–nicotine (particularly cigarettes)–ruined her voice, just as they ruined the voice of her older cousin, Dionne Warwick. She lost her range, her power, her sense of pitch, and the ability to sustain all but the shortest notes. According to reports, her dependence on cigarettes came after she got off the illegal drugs: one addiction replaced another.
In the last couple of years, Whitney Houston was talking about Jesus a lot more. Some reports have indicated that in the last few days of her life, she stated that she thought her time was short. Perhaps we’ll know more soon. Perhaps we never will. But I hope that the Gospel she sang about as a child in a New Jersey Baptist church became, at some point, more than just words to a song. I hope she did find her way home.