Remembering Whitney

“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.

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