BRIGHTER DAYS: Whitney Houston onstage in 1986. (Photo: Peter Mazel/Newscom)
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 “I Love the Lord.”
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.
There’s been a lot of chatter recently about Disney’s upcoming feature The Princess and the Frog, since it represents not only the studio’s return to traditional hand-drawn animation, but also the arrival of Disney’s first black princess. Though a little late to the party, this is still a welcome milestone for the mega-media company and for its lucrative Princess brand. For years, African American daughters, and their parents, have wondered if there would ever be a princess that looked like them. Now, this December, we’ll finally be able to answer in the affirmative.
But there’s actually another Disney character who’s become a role model of sorts to many little black girls, including my own 9- and 6-year-old daughters. And, as is often the case, she’s not whom you might expect.
I’m talking about Hannah Montana.
It’s been several weeks since my daughters and I went to see Hannah Montana: The Movie and I still find myself thinking about the film. Is it because it’s the best movie I’ve ever seen? No. Is it because it offered a compelling gospel message? Nope, that’s not it either.
One of the reasons the film has been on my mind is that it has caused me to think a lot about what makes the Hannah Montana character, as portrayed by 16-year-old actress/singer Miley Cyrus, have such widespread appeal. What started out just a few years ago as cute but cheesy Disney Channel show about an ordinary teenager (Miley Stewart) who leads a secret life as a pop-music superstar (Hannah Montana) has evolved into a huge brand that includes a multitude of licensed products, including such items as apparel, backpacks, books, clocks, shoes, toys, and even toothbrushes.
But here’s the kicker: Hannah Montana’s fan base isn’t just made up of straight-haired, light-eyed, fair-skinned girls that look like her; it transcends race and culture and includes girls of all skin tones, with different hair types, from a variety of ethnic groups and nationalities. Just look around the next time you’re in a large crowd where families with young girls are present; you’re bound to see someone of color wearing a piece of clothing bearing the trademark Hannah Montana guitar or butterfly motifs or emblazoned with her popular “Secret Pop Star” motto. Even the Obama daughters danced to Cyrus’s songs at a Disney-produced inauguration concert for kids.
It’s not surprising that the Disney show has become so popular. It features likeable characters and storylines that viewers can connect with easily. No, the average fan doesn’t reside in an upscale, California beach town as the main character, Miley Stewart, does. And it’s unlikely that many of them will ever become pop superstars. But girls still find the show — which is centered on the awkward situations Stewart gets herself into in every episode — entertaining.
And the show is not just a time-killer I give my kids permission to watch while I clean the house. I like it, as well! As a matter of fact, I often catch myself laughing at and repeating some of the one-liners and expressions articulated by the show’s characters (“Sweet niblets,” anyone?). In a nutshell, Hannah Montana is a program our whole family finds enjoyable — including my ordained, Ph.D’d, theologian husband.
I think another reason why the show is so popular with a wide variety of viewers is that it gives kids hope. By seeing that Stewart, a small-town country girl who dreamed of being a recording artist, has succeeded at reaching her goal, young viewers are inspired to pursue their own dreams. Despite all of her antics — and those of her alter ego (Hannah) — Stewart is a successful and well-adjusted young person. And, because of this, she’s become a role model for all sorts of girls — many of whom look nothing like her.
Wisely, the movie isn’t just a big-screen reenactment of the TV show. Though it features the same characters, it places Hannah/Miley in even bigger jams and forces her — and us — to confront several challenging life questions about friendship and personal integrity.
I also enjoyed the music in the film. The songs, like most Hannah Montana music, fuse together pop, rock, and country elements to produce child-friendly, infectious tunes. Take “The Hoedown Throwdown,” for instance. A mashup of hip-hop and country-western, “Hoedown” has spawned a new line dance that my girls attempt whenever the song plays on television or Radio Disney.
But, for me, what’s even more important than the fact that the TV show and movie feature age-appropriate humor, positive messages, and likeable music is that they have prompted multiple discussions with my girls about subjects that are important to our family.
For example, as all of us fans already know, Stewart’s life sometimes becomes complicated when she finds herself being torn between the two “worlds”– that of a regular teenager and that of a famous pop star — in which she tries to live. But she has made the choice to do it — and her father has agreed to it — because they believe it’s the only way she’ll be able to experience a normal upbringing.
Both in the film and TV show, the storylines centered on this theme are entertaining. But they also repeatedly reveal just how challenging and stressful living a double life as a regular teenager and a pop star can be. And isn’t that exactly what happens to us when we try to have it all, or when we try to be someone during the week that others wouldn’t even recognize on Sundays? When we attempt to have “the best of both worlds,” as Hannah’s theme song puts it, we often wind up emotionally, physically, and even spiritually exhausted.
Hannah Montana has given me the opportunity to remind my girls about the importance of prioritizing the relationships we have with the family members and friends that God has blessed us with. We should never allow our professional pursuits and dreams to compromise how we’re seen by the very people that will love us no matter how bad we mess up. When all the glitter and glam that many of us work so hard to have in our lives has lost its splendor, the people that we can usually count on the most to be there for us are not those that signed our checks or had our names engraved on awards. It’s the people we’re connected to by natural blood (our kinfolk) and divine blood (our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ). They are the ones who gird us up when the facades we put on from day to day become too much to bear.
But lest you think I’ve been totally brainwashed by the marketing behemoth that is Disney, allow me to say that I’m aware of that side of the phenomenon. Another reason I’ve been thinking about the Hannah Montana movie is that it further confirms what I already know about the Disney conglomerate: it is very intentional about securing the patronage of our children and, consequently, our families. Thanks to the plethora of Disney products that can be found on the shelves and racks of our favorite retailers, Disney has managed to wiggle its way into our homes and lives in a powerful way.
This is why parental discernment is so important, whether your child is fascinated by a Disney Channel star or someone from another network or recording company. Unbridled exposure to — and admiration of — a particular individual or character can sometimes lead to that figure becoming an idol. As Christian parents, we must guide our kids’ media choices while teaching them how to maintain a healthy separation between being “a fan” of a star like Miley Cyrus and becoming “a worshiper.”
Obviously, Hannah Montana is not the worst thing out there that parents have to contend with today. As an African American mother who wants her daughter exposed to hopeful and constructive messages, I appreciate the character. Though she’s a white girl from the sticks of Tennessee, she’s become a role model for young black girls like my daughters. Is she flawless? Of course not. Nobody’s perfect. But while we wait for The Princess and the Frog and other positive characters who reflect the multihued diversity of our world, Hannah isn’t a bad friend to have around.