When it was reported yesterday that Whitney Houston had died suddenly in the Beverly Hilton Hotel (reportedly in a bathtub), everyone seemed surprised and sad (and a few even thought the news was a Cher-like Twitter joke). Brian McKnight appeared on CNN today scolding us all for jibbing at Houston when she was alive and struggling, but pitying and missing her now that she had died.
I've been rummaging through my own significant shock and sadness. For most of her career, Houston has aggravated me to be honest. But unlike other erratic-behaving stars like Michael Jackson and Amy Winehouse, I never expected her to die imminently. I just assumed, at worst, she’d end up as an old-lady addict. I always assumed, since she looked so utterly healthy and feisty all her life (give or take a drug-bender or anorexic appearance on a 30-year-Michael-Jackson anniversary special) that her body would take the pummeling and persevere. I also didn't ever take her for a suicide. Too proud.
Which brings me to my frustration and fascination with Whitney Houston over the last 27-something years. I was 14 years old when "How Will I Know" hit MTV in 1985. It was clearly a corporate-made video, so polished and different than the DIY-videos I was used to seeing on TV. The video was so colorful and playful with the paint splashes and Whitney skipping around so happy, bouncy and pretty. It was addictively refreshing and perky. I remember listening to the album Whitney Houston at my friend Mandy's house. My favorite tracks were the duets with Jermaine Jackson. Jermaine is my favorite Jackson and I loved the smooth sounds of "Nobody Loves Me Like You Do" and "Take Good Care of My Heart." The album was full of other hits: "You Give Good Love," "Saving All My Love for You," "All at Once," and “Greatest Love of All.”
Then in 1987, my senior year, the album Whitney came out. Another happy-go-lucky, colorful video of Whitney singing “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.” It cheered my dark, depressed teen outlook. And finally she came through my city on a live tour. My friend Mandy and I saw her at the Muny Opera House in St. Louis. I was so expecting to see that happy, fresh young girl from the videos. When boys threw out catcalls, she took great offense and told us she wanted to be respected as a serious artist not a sex object. So self-serious. I was disappointed. My image was deflated.
And I didn’t enjoy the bombastic ballads and dance hits that followed, “Didn’t We Almost Have it All,” “So Emotional,” and “Where Do Broken Hearts Go.” The performances and videos didn’t have the fun rainbow feel of the early video I loved. Whitney wanted to be seen as a confident diva now. She wasn’t dancing and flirting with us teen girls anymore; she was beholden now to no one but herself. I’m sure this was empowering to many young black girls. And maybe if I hadn’t first imagined her as the innocent, free-spirited teen instead of the now-irritated, knowing diva, I wouldn’t have been so irked.
In any case, she now wanted to be respected as a powerful, in-control lady. So in 1990 when I’m Your Baby Tonight came out and she started dating the bad-boy Bobby Brown and suddenly, inexplicably chasing this kind of tough street-cred, I got really annoyed. Last decade she was the princess of soul from a gospel and easy-listening entertainment dynasty, not to mention the church; but now she’s sassy and urban from the rough streets of Newark. Right. I completely ignored the single “I’m Your Baby Tonight” and “All the Man I Need” (which I now can’t even remember).
I also ignored The Bodyguard. Have never seen it. Don’t like Kevin Costner and I know this is sacrilege but I prefer Dolly Parton’s much less bombastic version of “I Will Always Love You.” As for the single “I Have Nothing”…no thank you.
I did however love, love, love her gliding version of “I’m Every Woman” (Chaka Khan!) and I loved her version of the National Anthem in 1991 enough to buy the cassette single.
In 1998 I was living in Yonkers, New York, having just finished an MFA in Poetry at Sarah Lawrence College. I remember first hearing the song “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay” from the album My Love is Your Love while sitting at a light on the Saw Mill Parkway. I thought what a catchy-empowering hook and (finally) she’s gotten a clue about bad boy Bobby Brown! We’re probably ready now to move on to the next phase of her life, sans Bobby, which I hope is a revisit of that beautiful, fresh-faced happy teen thing.
Not to be. Things got bad, very bad. Through it all, Bobby went to jail and there was this melodramatic reunion on his release, the 2001 Michael-Jackson special's alarming weight loss, the marijuana bust in 2000, in the early 2000s failing to show up for scheduled performances and being fired from an Academy Awards show, the attitude problems in her interview with Diane Sawyer in 2002 (“I make too much money to ever smoke crack. Let's get that straight. Okay? We don't do crack. We don't do that. Crack is wack!”), her spat with Wendy Williams, the disoriented behavior on that international trip to Israel, and the final nail to her image being the 2005 reality show Being Bobby Brown. Her biggest enemy always seemed to be her own ego.
I don’t even remember Just Whitney being released in 2002, the holiday album in 2003 or I Look to You in 2009 (the first album cover where Whitney looked pretty haggard).
Going back to the beginning, I must tell you the song “Greatest Love of All” grated on my nerves. And everyone I knew used to make fun of the lines: “I believe the children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way. Show them all the beauty they possess inside.” The accompanying video included Whitney’s own mom, gospel singer Cissy Houston, and told the indulgent story of how a young Whitney was guided to be the strong, secure woman she grew up to be. It was full of empowerments: “I decided long ago, never to walk in anyone’s shadow. 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. Because the greatest love of all is happening to me. Learning to love yourself, it is the greatest love of all. And if by chance, that special place that you've been dreaming of leads you to a lonely place, find your strength in love.”
None of which turned out to be a life-giving truth for Whitney Houston. Which is what grates me most of all. I had a friend in high school who exactly reminded me of Whitney Houston. She was beautiful and talented and full of false bravado. Piously righteous before suddenly capitulating to the demons of the hardest vices.
Whitney Houston was the soundtrack of my young life to be sure. All that I loved and was frustrated by. I took for granted what teens before me could not, that beautiful black people could be pop mega-superstars. And because in many ways I still take that fact for granted as right and obvious, I feel I can say how I really felt about Whitney Houston. Why gloss over the unpleasant truth in respect for the dearly departed voice? As talented as she was, I wish she had been the strong character she once convinced me she was. Or at least the happy, angelic sprite I always wanted her to be.