Compulsion is a crazy thing and it pushes folks to do things both great and small, whether it’s picking up your family and life and moving to another state (more on that some other time) or just opting for another slice of pizza. Most of the time a compulsive move has little to no consequence, and yet sometimes it propels us into situations that change our lives for better or worse - and sometimes ends them all together. It’s certainly compulsion that drives folks who seem to outwardly have it all into the grips of some sort of desperate dependency until they become the husk of the person they once were, or at least appeared to be, until they are suddenly carried away by the winds of fate.
So it’s compulsion that drives me to write a blurb about the passing of Whitney Houston, the ripples of which will most definitely have no impact on anything whatsoever.
I was at a “cupcake party” with friends, a mass of children going bonkers all around us, seriously loud as all get out, and amidst the chaos someone got a text and said, “Whitney Houston just died.” We made him repeat it, and then we all pulled out our smart phones to get the confirmation for ourselves (modern times, kids), and from my own search the news had broken 11 minutes before.
We all sorta laughed a little like you do when something like this happens to someone ultra famous, especially infamous (as Whitney had become), speculated about who the "other two" would be and someone quipped that this was the “Elvis moment” of our generation. This is certainly not true (Kurt Cobain and Michael Jackson get to battle it out for that), but undoubtedly we’ll all remember 5, 10 and 25 years from now where we were when we heard that Whitney Houston had passed.
See, we were a mixed bag of music fans collectively, but all being in our 30s, there was no denying that Whitney Houston was a huge part of our lives during some formative years, because even if we weren’t fans (and yes, some of us were), her first two albums and the Bodyguard soundtrack were EVERYWHERE in the mid to late 80s and early 90s. Even after I was in college and beyond, actively tuning out most pop culture, her presence was still well intact, and enough so to at least make me take peripheral notice as I went about my life.
I am not and never have been a fan of Whitney Houston, but I also never disliked her. Listening to her old songs is like flipping through an old photo album; you don’t always like every shot, but they certainly bring back a lot of fond memories that surround those moments - and those songs make me feel good when I hear them today.
I have very vivid and not unpleasant memories of being in middle school and seeing I Wanna Dance with Somebody repeatedly on TBS’s Night Tracks, to the point where when I hear the song in passing, I can almost picture that point in the video. And that was a good time for me as I started discovering the music I loved, figuring out what was what, building the persona that has very much carried me into the present day as my music appreciation expands in ways that surprise me now and would have mortified me 15 years ago.
As a kid and into my 20s, etc, I never took music like Whitney’s very seriously. It was fun, throwaway pop at best, or pointless cash in cheese at worst. And certainly at the time I’d have said “Oh, yeah, I hate that song,” but in truth, I’d have had to admit it was harmless fun, easy to tap your foot to and sing along with, and so not without some sort of worth. I certainly would not have said it’s “fun, throwaway pop” or “pointless cash in cheese,” because I was an idiot, but not a pretentious one.
This morning I came downstairs and my wife had Pandora playing a Whitney station, and she also played a couple of online deals that folks were posting, including a vocals only version of I Wanna Dance with Somebody. It was right then that I realized that Whitney Houston had a voice that wasn’t a talent but a gift, and wasn’t a tool but a weapon. She didn’t tackle melodies like a lot of more contemporary R&B singers, who think it’s about vocal gymnastics and end up sounding like a cat drowning in a bag. With Whitney, the music didn’t erupt or explode, it wasn’t discharged or spewed; it was released, and flowed with a power that was its own force. Whitney simply harnessed it, wielding that power with the ability to make your heart skip a beat, draw tears out of your eyes or just stand you up on your feet to sing along. All you have to do is listen to her version of Dolly's I Will Always Love You to understand the difference between "someone who can sing" and a singer. It's startling in the most majestic way.
And now that I’m older and much less biased about the various kinds of popular music that I once considered stupid (“taboo”), I can say this and appreciate Whitney as an artist, even if I’m still not a fan. In more recent years I’ve spent time in my "love of all" music quest visiting albums from these “taboo” artists (e.g. Abba, the Bee Gees, etc) that are considered timeless classics, not just hits of the day or genre. Part of that, and especially with Whitney Houston, is certainly nostalgia. But also, these are songs and albums that have withstood the test of time for twenty or thirty years, just as the Beatles or the Stones had back when The Greatest Love of All and How Will I Know were burning up the mid 80s charts.
And those songs, truly, are more than just fun pop or “good for what they are,” they’re good songs, period - and yet none of them would have been as much then or anything now without Whitney Houston being the voice, the face and the entire package, singing from heart and soul and making a believer out of millions. I can recognize that even if I’m not necessarily going to go pick up her self-titled debut or the follow up Whitney, both of which have about everything I’d need, and both of which receive great reviews even today (you know, for what they are).
But I guess what really hit me later this afternoon, when 24 hours before she was still living, though obviously not in a good place, is that a small part of me has passed on along with Whitney. And this is more than losing a musical icon or personal idol, there’s something about the innocence of her early music that I relate back to my early and innocent days, and part of that innocence is now irrevocably gone as well. And yes, I realize that especially in more recent years she had her demons, had become reality TV fodder and in some instances had become a laughing stock. Even back in the day I wondered why in the world she was with Bobby Brown, who just seems like a tool, because my own personal if cursory view of Whitney Houston was that she was a really nice lady who sang music I didn’t really care much about.
Twenty-five years later I still can’t say that I “care” much for the music, but I’m happy to admit that especially over the past five to ten years, I’ve enjoyed hearing those super hits, because they’re timeless and nostalgic, because they’re really that good, and because they remind me of a time when dead rock stars were vague names from someone else’s era, while those of the now would live forever.
If only that were true.