A friend of mine and I secretly joke about people’s dramatic, gushing proclamations after a celebrity death. We often wondered how someone could be honestly “devastated” by the passing of an individual whose music/voice/personality we’ve only digested through a middleman such as the radio, a Letterman interview, or a blockbuster film.
I wondered this until Saturday, February 11, 2012. I was in Baltimore doing community outreach when MSNBC released a breaking news text that Whitney Houston had passed in her hotel room. My immediate reaction was disbelief. And then the calls came in from my family and friends, checking to see if I knew yet and asking if I was okay. Every call seemed like a damning confirmation and I thought, “Maybe if people stop saying it, it won’t have really happened.” So I got into my car for the long drive home, too numb to really display any emotion. I started the engine and before I could stop it, I heard the pure, clear voice often called “America’s Voice” lean into the gospel classic “.”
Then it hit me.
This was the voice of a woman who was no longer with us.
I could tell you how the tollbooth guy seemed genuinely concerned by my tear-streaked face during our transaction, but I’d rather share something more useful. Whitney’s life and music taught me a few things:
1. Sexy doesn’t have to mean blond and blue-eyed or skimpy and short. Whitney burst on the scene in the ’80s with big hair, leg warmers, and off-the-shoulder tanks. With her mother Cissy Houston’s guidance and her cousin Dionne Warwick’s backing, Whitney Houston became the face of the All-American Girl, and she didn’t even have to writhe around the stage or downplay her “Blackness.” The world hasn’t been the same since, and it isn’t a good karaoke night until someone sings “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.”
2. Love is a contact sport. As the child of a minister, there were few secular artists whose music made it into our house, but there was no avoiding the big, powerful and family-friendly sound of Whitney Houston. Furthermore, my military elementary school in Texas followed the National Anthem with “One Moment In Time” as a form of civic inspiration, every single morning. Before I got to find out for myself, I learned that sometimes love hurts so bad, love is timeless (“I Will Always Love You”), and that anxious, nervous feeling I got whenever I saw that boy from my class was normal (“How Will I Know”). She even taught us a little healthy self-love with “The Greatest Love of All.”
3. Women are multidimensional. These days, filmmakers anxious to sell tickets give acting gigs to anyone with a recognizable face, making the “singer slash actress” role almost assumed. Whitney, though … she did it right. Whitney not only headlined the soundtracks for The Bodyguard, Waiting to Exhale, and The Preacher’s Wife … but she acted in them. Let me say that again, she ACTED in them. Whitney was more than a pretty face who could sing; she was a mother, a wife, a philanthropist, an actress, and a producer. She truly epitomized “I’m Every Woman” and taught me from an early age that I could be too.
4. Everyone makes mistakes. For four years straight, I was Whitney Houston for Halloween. And not just because it was a relatively cheap costume, but because she was gorgeous, well spoken, had an amazing talent, and seemed like such fun to be around. She wasn’t human to me; she was larger than life. But while Whitney’s voice inspired and brought joy to millions, her life was often spotted with rough times. Unlike you and me, Whitney didn’t have the luxury of enduring these trials with a finite spotlight cast by her family and friends; Whitney went through it all publicly. While this glaring spotlight may have laid bare her pain, it served to remind us that everyone has problems and everyone stumbles.
The woman that I most wanted to be like growing up has died at 48, leaving her 18-year-old daughter motherless. Her well-known battles with addiction offer cautionary lessons of their own, but they don’t tell us anything about her private struggle to overcome them. That is now between Whitney and her Creator. I won’t speculate about the cause of her death, because big picture-wise it doesn’t matter. What matters is that we recognize the very human quality of the entertainers that enrich our lives.
Whitney’s voice made her unique. But Whitney’s troubles made her one of us. And for that, I am grateful.
I haven’t stopped missing Whitney since I got the news. But while I’m sorry she’s left us, I’m thankful that her music itself provides a salve to help heal the wound in our hearts.