I’m writing too many of these. News of Whitney’s death arrived on a February night when cold has gripped much of the East Coast. My brother – much more nimble a driver in the snow than I – chauffeured me to Whole Foods for groceries, and we pulled into the gas station en route to dropping me off. He received a phone call from an acquaintance informing him that Whitney Houston had died. In disbelief, I immediately whipped out my Droid, looking for any evidence that would disprove this vicious rumor. To my surprise, I only saw confirmations: CNN, NYT, MSNBC, WAPO, LATimes, ABCNews, TMZ all said the same thing – WHITNEY HOUSTON – DEAD AT 48.
Whitney Houston’s death at 48 all but ensures that the childhood of several 80s babies – myself included – is dead at 30-something. That’s how indelible she was to us. Her death transported me back to the day when I first saw the “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” video, and longed for the day when I would have the physical wherewithal to justifiably don one of those skintight dresses she wore in the “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” video.
She sang about things that I didn’t understand at the time. What did it mean to save all one’s love for somebody? Love was something that you could save for somebody? Fast forward to February 11, 2012, the day of her untimely passing, and I now know exactly what Whitney was singing about, and all the pain that comes with it. Back then, I could only admire the Whit’s astounding vocal prowess without understanding what she meant when she sang with pure soul-fire conviction: No other woman is gonna love you more! Yeah, Whitney, what I didn’t know before I sho nuff know now. I can say with conviction that no other voice but yours could truly articulate with sufficient emotion and moxie how true that statement is for me, right here, right now.
That’s what the greatest artists can do: they can grow with you and vice versa. As I grew older, the fun and upbeat “I Wanna Dance Somebody” gave way to the more grown-up themes embedded in Whitney’s catalog. As immediate as her longing was to youthfully dance with somebody, is as equally heart-weary as she was to resign herself to save all her love. I’ve already danced with somebody at this point, now I’m saving all my love for him.
Aside from the personal significance she holds for me, let us not forget that Whitney’s rise to fame represents the union of
two very different strains of soul divas. On the one side, you have the gospel soul shouters; on the other side, you have the “uptown” glamour divas. The gospel grit of Gladys Knight, her godmother Aretha Franklin, Candi Staton, Linda Jones found reliable representation in the iteration of Whitney’s gospel-trained voice. But her voice and glamorous carriage were equally imbued with the girlish finesse typified by the likes of Diana Ross, cousin Dionne Warwick, Barbara Mason, Barbara Lewis, Dusty Springfield and Brenda Payton (the “Brenda” of Brenda and the Tabulations). You could envision Whitney tackling with aplomb both Aretha’s “Respect” and Diana Ross’ “Touch Me In The Morning.” And you just know that Ree and Ms. Ross would feel quite comfortable with Whitney interpreting any of the valuable gems in each of their iconic repertoires. With Whitney, fans of all brands of “soul diva” finally had no need to choose. We could get our gospel and our glam in one, skinny, regal-but-approachable, sangin’ package. Her vibe was glamorously aloof and earthily down-home all at once. Whitney took the best of both of these traditions, swathed it in a lean, glittering gown and gave it to us in full force, aided by the sure marketing hand of Clive Davis.
In short, she represented all of me without compromise. The Baptist girl and the Diva were not opposed to each other in Whitney’s persona. They were one and the same. My little usher’s gloves and vixen-like dresses could belong to the same person, after all. The good girl could fall in love, be hurt, be redeemed, say fervent prayers and fervently embrace all the same.
Whitney Houston was not just musically important. Her social significance cannot be denied. She was the girl doing “the Snake” with her bandmember in the “So Emotional” video, the girl wearing the adorable pewter dress in the “How Will I Know” video, and yet this very same girl also fell for a guy who exacerbated her vices and she loved him just the same. She could be any one of us, that’s why we loved her. But we could never be as glamorous as she was, and that’s equally why we loved her.