When I heard the news last night, I couldn’t speak. I was in shock. Whitney Houston died? How? I thought she got clean? She hasn’t been in the news lately for drug use? I guess I assumed she was just living somewhere quietly, raising her daughter, who, I just learned, is an adult at 19 years old.
I thought about how much life has changed in the last decade or so. About how when a celebrity died years ago, people were less flippant about it. News travelled slower. A friend might mention a celebrity’s death to you over lunch days after it happened, and you might not yet have heard. I thought about how my mom called me to tell me that Anna Nicole Smith died while I was shopping for onesies in Babies R Us. I thought about how I was listening to The Wendy Williams Show on WBLS when I found out Michael Jackson died. I marveled at the way in which my friend Jenny had just informed me Whitney died – maybe half-assuming I’d already heard in the era of Facebook and Twitter – by texting me the phrase, “Fuckin Whitney!” Those two words let me know that one of the most celebrated artists of all time and a woman I have always considered to be the greatest pop/R&B vocalist that ever was, was gone.
I texted my friend Margot. I should have called, but she lives in LA now and we don’t get to talk that much anymore. “Meet me at Planet Rose, I’m saving all my love for you!” She called me back right away. “I just got out of class and I had so many messages about this! I can’t believe it. I was such a fan of Whitney.” There was a time a few years back when a regular crew of comedians would do karaoke together. Anytime anyone would sing Whitney, Margot would lose her shit. I very vividly remember Margot standing to my right, conducting a performance of mine as I was belting “I Have Nothing.”
“Come on, Carolyn! DON’T MAKE ME CLO-OSE! ONE MORE DOOR! YES!” I chose it because I didn’t want to hurt anymore. I became a karaoke queen in the wake of my divorce, Margot just after she got married. We were both dealing with massively emotional transitions, and Whitney was there to help guide us, inspiring us with her incredible songs.
It’s that voice, really, that I can’t get out of my mind. I can’t listen to Whitney sing today without getting chills. Her rich belt and lilting soprano take me back to a different time, filled with acid wash and dreams. Scrunchies, Mead notebooks, Trapper Keepers, boys, the school bus. Peg-legged jeans, Keds, white people bopping from side to side and snapping to black music. Denim overalls, Hypercolor, Paula Abdul. Listening to tapes on a boom box. My first CD! No Internet. Early hip-hop. My childhood.
I remember being a 10-year-old kid listening to the radio in my parents’ kitchen in the midst of doing chores all alone, feeling like an unappreciated slave. Were I a teen today, I might have responded to my angst the way Hannah Jordan did, by writing a passive-aggressive note to my parents on Facebook, resulting in the destruction of my laptop. But in 1986, there were no laptops. There weren’t even cordless phones, really. Every time “The Greatest Love of All” came on the radio, I’d stop whatever I was doing and sing solemnly, “I believe the children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way. Show them all the beauty they possess inside. Give them a sense of pride, to make it easier. Let the children’s laaaaa-have-ter, remind us how we used to be.”
And I believed that! I believed I was the future, and that I needed love. And even though the thought of a 10-year-old righteously belting, “I decided long ago, never to walk in anyone’s shadow!” is ridiculously hilarious, the song was anthemic and I had claimed it as my own. My parents didn’t understand me, but Whitney did. The greatest love of all was inside of me! It was learning to love yourself. Revolutionary. Years later, after my divorce, I would make a quick, funny Facebook video trying to cheer myself up and to allow others to laugh at my pain. In it, I said, “Turns out Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All” isn’t about masturbation. I know, cuz I tried it, and I don’t feel any better.”
It’s easy for me to see how deeply Whitney’s life and career affected me and my peers just by scrolling through my Facebook feed. The tributes I’m reading are not shallow postings of “At Last” over and over in honor of a woman we knew very little about. Houston’s music was the soundtrack of our young lives, and when The Bodyguard was released, it blew everyone away. The songs were incredible, Whitney was stunningly beautiful in that iconic “Cleopatra-inspired beaded headpiece” (as described by Glamour), and it was a movie about an interracial love affair, which – believe it or not, children – was still a big deal in 1992. My father fell in love with Whitney Houston after watching that movie, and he would often talk about how beautiful she was, in an “after-seeing-that-movie-now-I-know-she-dates-white-guys-so-I-have-a-chance!” sort of way.
You may recall that back in April, a study was released that revealed a “statistically significant trend toward narcissism and hostility in popular music” from 1980-2007. The researchers determined that, “In the early ’80s lyrics, love was easy and positive, and about two people,” but now “songs are about what the individual wants, and how she or he has been disappointed or wronged.” Whitney Houston’s music career peaked squarely in the middle of the years tracked by this study, and her lyrics reflect this changing dynamic. Whitney’s songs weren’t narcissistic, but they weren’t about love being easy, either. She sang about longing and heartbreak in the most tender way possible, in a way that was both selfless and self-aware, capturing the bittersweet better than anyone else. Whitney Houston’s music was all about love, a love she could sing about but never found a way to fill herself up with, as is true of so many of the world’s greatest artists.
Thank you for sharing your gift with us, Whitney. It is because of you that every female pop/R&B vocalist who came after you enjoyed success. These are the songs I will always treasure:
My Love Is Your Love 1 of 10God I love this song. One of the few Whitney releases from the third act of her career that I really dig.
Where Do Broken Hearts Go 2 of 10And if somebody loves you, won't they always love you?
I Will Always Love You 3 of 10Little known fact: the Dolly Parton version of this is from the film "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas." ("Whorehouse" is the first show I did in college. I was Doatsy Mae, a Plain Jane looking for love.)
One Moment in Time 4 of 10Iconic. This is a live performance. There are no English words to capture it. The closest thing I can think of is the Dutch "onvoorstelbaar."
The Greatest Love of All 5 of 10Learning to love yourself, it is the greatest love of all.
Didn’t We Almost Have It All 6 of 10Remember when we held on in the rain? This one's live:
The Star-Spangled Banner 7 of 10Tears, every time.
Run to You 8 of 10A girl who's scared sometimes, who isn't always strong ... Can't you see the hurt in me, I feel so all alone ...
Saving All My Love for You 9 of 10One of my karaoke classics. The vocals on this are beyond.
I Have Nothing 10 of 10Hoping to sing this at a show on Friday. Love you, Whitney.