If I close my eyes, I can hear the music. I can almost feel as if I’m driving up to college in my used 1981 white-and-turquoise Buick Regal, cassette tape blaring, and me singing along at the top of my lungs…
“Ooooh, I wanna dance with somebody…”
Circa late ‘80s, sugar-sweet pop songs and soulful, sweeping love ballads. Whitney Houston sang the soundtrack for my coming of age.
God, she was gorgeous and had that incredible, imagination-defying voice. In a time when there was not much crossover between ‘black’ and ‘white’ music (Vanilla Ice was a ‘rapper,’ remember?) she was comfortable, mainstream black pop, and sometimes took some heat for it in the African-American community during her career. Her musical heritage ran deep—her gospel-singing mother Cissy Houston, her cousin Dionne Warwick, and godmother Aretha Franklin taught her well. And she exploded onto the music industry scene at such a pivotal time in my life.
Music can define our chronology. For my parents it was the Beatles. For me it was the time of ‘80s pop that marked the moments of when I left childhood behind. Who didn’t want to be like Whitney Houston, the Seventeen magazine cover girl turned huge star. And if we couldn’t be her, we sure could pretend, by singing along to all her hits. “Savin’ All My Love For You” held the promise of undying love and heartbreak all at the same time. She was romance and beauty and everything else an 18-year-old teenage-girl-on-the-cusp-of-womanhood fantasized about.
And then she made “The Bodyguard.” With stars in our eyes, we watched her play an outsized version of her superstar self, only to have Kevin Costner when he was still Kevin Costner be her protector, savior and prince charming. “I Will Always Love You” was titanic sized before Celine Dion ever even dreamed of humming a defining movie ballad love anthem.
She became even more iconic by singing an anthem of a different kind; during the Gulf War in 1991, she sang our national anthem at that year’s Super Bowl, turning in a legendary version that today’s Christina Aguilera and others who followed Whitney could never come close to.
The albums, the multiple Grammys and other awards, the numerous Billboard number ones, more box-office breaking movies…she racked up accolades. She started children’s charities, stood tall against apartheid, and sang for Nelson Mandela.
But as news of her death spread this past weekend, it seemed many only remembered the last 15 years or so of Whitney’s life, the years marked by drug use and her tumultuous marriage to Bobby Brown. The diva Whitney who was photographed looking disheveled, who cancelled performances, and whose singing faltered terribly. The Whitney who appeared in the reality show, “Being Bobby Brown,” which proved just how far she had tumbled. “Crack is whack,” she told Diane Sawyer in one of the most highly-rated television interviews in history.
We build up our superstar idols, only to perversely thrill in watching them plummet like broken swallows. People reveled in the train wreck Whitney’s life had become. The tragic deaths of icons like Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Michael Jackson…and now Whitney Huston solidifies the legend that stars who soar too close to the sun will burn. It fulfills the prophecies of superstardom.
The tragedy is not so much the extinguishing of a star that burst from abuse, pressures, constant grabbing of handlers and hangers-on, and the push for more, more, more. Neither is the tragedy in the loss felt by those that do the idolizing, like the 18 year old girl I once was. The tragedy is in the silence, the silencing of the voice that came from the 18 year old girl that Whitney Houston once was, the purity of the sound that rose out of her from no-one-knew-where but that lifted and exalted and soared.
The magic that was the music was really “The Greatest Love of All.” For if you strip away the awards, the flashing lightbulbs, the entourages, the platinum albums and the fame, what remains is the sound that still gives you goosebumps and transports you to a different plane. The tragedy is that the music will be no more. I think now I understand the meaning of “The Day the Music Died.”
Rest in peace, Whitney Houston.