“Everybody searching for a hero
People need someone to look up to
I never found anyone to fulfill my needs
A lonely place to be
So I learned to depend on me”
Last night as my wife and I enjoyed our first night out since well before the birth of our son, I looked to my phone to check the time and sneaked a peak at the latest news. When a group of youngish college kids who were seated across from us began discussing the same news, I was dismayed. One of them said, “Who is Whitney Houston?” Another one responded, “I guess she’s a singer or something.” A third, “Never heard of her.”
I almost entered their conversation as I waited for my wife to return from the bathroom. “Who is Whitney Houston?,” I imagined myself saying, “only the best and most memorable voice from the end of the 20th century.” I wanted to tell them there was a time when she stood as large as Michael Jackson and Madonna, when the only thing as recognizable as her voice was her smile. But I didn’t. These kids were, well, kids who had ‘sir’ed’ me and ‘ma’am’ed’ my wife. (They also confirmed that we should start frequenting different establishments. Too old.)
How would they know who Whitney was, unless they watched TMZ all the time and followed the tabloid-perfect fall from grace? Maybe it is better that these 18 year-olds didn’t know who she was, or should have been. The best pop singer of two generations. The other songs they don’t know: “I want to dance with somebody”; “How Will I know”; “Saving all my love for you”. The list goes on.
A few years ago, when my wife and I were driving to a distant airport in the middle of the night, she prevailed upon me to cede all control of music to her. I can’t remember the exact details, but I lost some kind of bet or proposition and my fate was to listen to a “Best of…” Mariah Carey album. This listening turned into an hour-long debate about the best diva. We weighed the relative merits of Celine Dion (too Canadian, too creepy) and Christina Aguilera (amazing voice, no signature song) before settling on a verbal cage match between Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey (I was not arguing for Mariah Carey).
On the album was the track “When You Believe”, a duet between the two singers (I know, what a convenient piece of evidence). Their voices are different; Mariah may be the better technical singer, she may have a better range (maybe), but there is something about the basic quality of Whitney’s voice that cannot be taught. Mariah’s voice was made and trained for pop. Whitney’s voice was made for something else, for something bigger. It is golden, sweeter, pure. Its tone is so round and beautiful. Other singers work to hit notes that just flow from her mouth. Other people sound like Mariah; nobody sounds like Whitney.
I remember my first impression of Whitney Houston so sharply it is almost uncanny. When I was really young we lived next two a family with two boys (The M&Ms), one a year old than me, one a year younger; one of them was dark and pudgy, the other was fair and skinny. The older, shy one had a love affair with pop music at a very young age. He had cassette singles of all the hits before I knew what cassette singles (or hits were). I would go over to his house and he would play Michael Jackson, Madonna or Richard Marx (?) for me.
One day, he put in Whitney’s “Greatest Love of All”. From the first few bars of music, we were both hooked. I think, in part, the fact that she was talking about children being the future attracted us (because, hey, we were definitely children), but her voice was unlike anything we had heard before. The song, about self-esteem at some level, was clear enough to be understood even by us and so corny that only a master vocalist could carry it off. She did; she makes you believe.
To this day, if anyone starts a sentence with the phrase “I decided long ago…” I say to myself “never to walk in anyone’s shadow”. That song and that album dominated the charts and Houston dominated the world well through her overwhelming success with “I will always love you” from the Bodyguard in 1992. Then, as we’ll hear a thousand times over the next few days, she married Bobby Brown, she began to dabble in drugs and became the caricature stalking through the tabloid news.
I don’t know if I’ll be able to take it if talking heads start talking smugly about the woman who sang about the greatest love of all being the ability to love herself being ironic. I may have to destroy my television if that happens.
Like Michael Jackson a few years ago and countless other musicians and artists over the years we find a pattern that goes back to ancient myth itself. Someone, bigger than life, explodes upon our world, changes it so quickly and then, too soon, is gone. The ancient Greeks realized this heroic pattern in a figure like Bellerophon who kills the Chimaera, defeats the Amazons and gets everything anyone could want; sometime later, he falls out of favor of the gods and loses everything, wandering alone to his death.
Bellerophon’s alleged sin was that he tried to fly the horse Pegasus to Olympus to gain membership among the gods. This, at some level, is a metaphor for striving for fame and immortality. That Bellerophon cannot get it is somehow instructive for us. Our heroes often just fade away or age ungracefully, but just enough flare up and flame out to remind us of this elemental pattern, to remind us of our own mortality and the fragility of even the brightest flame.
But we do a disservice casting those who pass away young in the image of a hero, because if it doesn’t legitimize their passing it certainly gives us an all-to-easy way to cope with it. Of course, Kurt Cobain and Elvis Presley had to die young. Their specific experiences cleave to the expectations we have from the stories they tell. Their lives are a fulfillment of our prophecies, but only if we skirt certain details, less simple truths.
We will witness handwringing over Whitney’s drug use and hear about the perils of too much fame, the dangers of living an insular life, and the corrupting influence of money and power within the echo chamber of popular culture. What we won’t hear enough about, what we can never hear about is the true heart behind that smile. The young woman whose life bowed beneath the pressure of expectation and the allure of drug addiction.
Another theme that will get lost in the pendulum swing between hagiography and recrimination: millions of Americans every year struggle and lose battles with addictions. Here, too, Whitney was not above us or better than us but her struggle and her failure is ours as a culture and a people. Those who gloss over the utter commonness of her affliction do a great disservice to the essential humanity she shares with everyone else; those who blame her too harshly (or her ex-husband) deny the simple truth of the everydayness of her death. The only difference is that TMZ reported her tragedy.
In the chorus to the greatest love, Whitney sings “I decided long ago, never to walk in anyone’s shadows / If I fail, if I succeed / At least I live as I believe / No matter what they take from me / They can’t take away my dignity.” For her sake, her family’s and ours, I hope that these lines stay true. Whitney certainly emerged from all shadows and stood on her own; despite all efforts to the contrary, she did seem to live the life of her choosing.
At the end, however, we are the ones who can still strip her of her dignity. A life passed too early; yes, whatever the coroner’s report says, her choices probably had some impact on that early passing. But, in this too, she is little different from all the people who heard her songs. We all make choices every day that limit our lives or bring them to faster conclusions. Whitney had the misfortune of dying a public death.
May she rest in peace and may we keep the best of her memory: the golden voice, the megawatt smile, the laugh that sounded like singing.