That was the first word that came to mind when I heard about Whitney Houston. I was sitting on the sofa, watching television with Parker when my sister sent me a text message.
“Did u hear? Whitney houston died at age 48.”
Of course, there’s little I can say about Whitney that hasn’t been said.
For people who grew up in my generation, it’s hard to express what she meant. She was to our generation what, say, Diana Ross was to the one before us, in terms of exemplifying a level success and accomplishment that many of us dreamed of and aspired to. Half the girls I grew up with wanted to be Whitney, in the early phase of her career. There was never a school talent show that didn’t include at least one person (male or female) singing “The Greatest Love of All,” inspired by Whitney’s version. Her music was a part of my growing up. From the moment I saw the video for “You Give Good Love,” I was hooked. By the time I got to “Saving All My Love For You,” I wanted more.
Her voice? Put simply, at her peak there was simply no one better than Whitney. She had both power and control. Whitney once said that her mother taught her to use her powerful voice, starting out softly, and then building up to the full measure of what she could bring to a song. A lot of current singers would do well to take note. A powerful voice is great, but knowing how and when to loose that power — and when to pull it back is a mark of true skill and artistry.
Whitney had it all. Like Barbra Streisand said, “She had everything, beauty, a magnificent voice. How sad her gifts could not bring her the same happiness they brought us.” Whitney was easily in that class of vocalists who so clearly stand among the best of their generation that their surnames need not be uttered for them and their influence to be recognized: Bessie, Billie, Judy, Barbra, Aretha, and — yes — Whitney.
When Whitney put her gifts and her training together. She could stop you in your tracks. She could lift your spirits. She could break your heart.
This time around, she broke my heart.
I listened to Whitney today, for the first time since I heard about her death. For the past week, I just couldn’t do it. And when I finally could, it wasn’t “the old Whitney” I wanted to here. Don’t get me wrong. I love “the old Whitney,” and her nearly perfect vocals. But like I said when I reviewed her last album, perfection doesn’t interest me much.
There may be people who will only accept the “old Whitney” or some approximation thereof. They will probably come away disappointed. There may be people who aren’t willing or able to forgive Houston for no longer having that “perfect” voice or not being perfect herself. They will come away disappointed, too.
Admittedly, I’m biased towards rooting for most comeback attempts. As a recovering alcoholic/addict, and someone living with ADD, I tend to root for people getting up from a fall. I’ve messed up enough times to know what it means to get another chance.
Sure, it’s exciting to watch someone soar. It’s fun to cheer for a winner. But someone getting up from a fall and even trying to move forward again is much more compelling. I care less about the person who crosses the finish line first, grabs the gold, and goes on to the winner’s circle, than I do about the person who finishes the race even though it’s clear the best she’ll be is an also-ran When I’m cheering for the underdog then my heart is in it.
I’m less interested in the person who does all the right things (or at least appears to), than the people who screws up their lives in any one of a hundred different ways, and at least tries to recover. In some ways, they’re better examples than the people who appear to make all the right moves. That is, if you know what it means to get up and keep going.
A couple of months ago I wrote a blog post about 100 Ways To Live A Better Life. The post got featured almost instantly on Delicious, Reddit and StumbleUpon. Since then, it gets a few hundreds hits every day and a new comment every once in while (although it’s more than 2 months old now). But re-reading it the other day I spotted a slight imbalance. Couldn’t tell at first what it was, but it was an imbalance. Like a picture with too much pink.
Then it hit me: life is not pink. It’s rough and challenging and filled with tests and temptations. And this is what makes it beautiful, after all. Living a better life stems most of the time from making a lot of mistakes and learning from them, rather than from avoiding challenges. Better try and fail than isolate yourself in a sea of delusion and non-action. As pink as that sea might be.
When I wrote that review, I was hopeful for Whitney. Not for her to have a successful comeback, necessarily, or for her to return to her “old self.” (As if anyone of of could ever be our “old selves” again.) Like I wrote about Amy Winehouse, I was cheering for Whitney to get better.
That’s the saddest thing about Amy Winehouse’s death. Not that there won’t be any more music from her, beyond what recordings she leaves behind. I’d have cheered a real recovery for Amy Winehouse, even if getting better meant that she never sang another note, just like I cheer for any addict to get better for their own sake, and for the sake of those who love them — and not cheating themselves out of having more of what Lena Horne called “good old, sweet, hard life,” in one of her concert monologues.
The saddest thing about Amy Winehouse isn’t that she cheated the world out of the music that sprang from her talent and creativity.
It’s that she cheated herself, like we knew she probably would — but hoped to the end that she wouldn’t.
That’s what I hoped for, for Whitney — to get better, be healthy, get old, get some gray hairs and wrinkles, play with her grandchildren, and die of old age. Even if she never sang another note, never graced the cover of a magazine, made a movie, or granted so much as one interview. Even if she went from being Whitney Houston to “Whitney Who?” That would have been “having it all.”
As a fan, she certainly didn’t owe me anything more. She didn’t have to record I Look To You, after her extended rehab. I considered it a gift. She didn’t owe it to me to morph back to her twentysomething self. I was never mad as her for destroying what the LA Times reviewer call “the national treasure that happened to reside within her.” When Oprah quoted that review to Whitney, in that now-famous interview, Whitney’s immediate response was “That’s not fair,” which she followed up by basically asserting that however famous she was, and however gifted talented, she was still a human being. (Remember this was a woman whose image was so glamorous at one time that she had to explain to people that she didn’t walk around in sequined gowns all the time. Seriously.)
Whitney basically said that she was a person, not the perfect pop princess she was made-up to be, but a human being endowed with an inalienable right to fuck up.
Part of being concerned about social justice is understanding that humans fuck up. That we are, to use a cliche, all more than the worst thing we have ever done. That Helen Thomas can say something that feels like a personal slap across my face and still be a journalist that I look up to. That someone can commit a crime and still deserve more than being locked up and having the key thrown away.
Increasingly we live in a world where we have no right to fuck up. If we do fuck up, there Is rarely a second chance any more. (Don’t believe me? Just look at our bankruptcy laws. Fuck up financially now, and you’re done. No second chance. No redemption.) When we fuck-up, when we fail, we’re supposed to quietly leave the stage. That is, after being sufficiently called out, scorned, and humiliated, for the sake of others’ gratification or entertainment. (Reality TV thrives on this.)
The only thing people seemed angrier at Whitney for than fucking up was her refusal to just go away, and her insistence that she had something else to give, or at least a few more songs to sing. If she had been able to freeze things a the point when she recorded I Look To You, if she had been able to stop smoking and drinking (two of the worst things you can do to your voice), she might have gotten to sing a few more songs, she might have even repaired some of the damage done.
I would like to have heard more of that voice, even if it didn’t have the clarity, power, or “perfection” of her old voice. It was the time-worn, rough-edged, lived-in voice of a woman who had seen and done things the girl who sang “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me),” couldn’t have imagined, lived through it, made it to the other side, and had a few things to say about it.
That was the voice I wanted to hear, the voice of the Whitney I’d been rooting for, the Whitney I hoped would make it back to life if not back to the top of the charts or the box office. By the time I got to “Nothin’ But Love,” something started welling up in me as I took in the lyrics that spilled over when I finally got to “I Look To You.” I finally mourned, for Whitney. Not for the icon that’s been part of my universe since 1985. Not for the artists whose songs are part of the soundtrack of my life, that invoke some of the happiest times, and helped me get through the worst. Not for the “perfect” voice that, in truth, died long before Whitney herself.
I mourned for the all to human Whitney who, like myself, struggled with addiction. I mourned for another addict who didn’t make it. We don’t know the exact causes of Whitney’s death, and won’t for many weeks, so I won’t engage in the kind of speculation that’s been going on since news of her death scrolled across our television screens. But it’s almost certain that, whatever ultimately caused Whitney Houston’s death, her long history of addiction played a major role. I wanted to see Whitney make it out, just like I want to see other addicts make it out of the grip of addiction. There are only two ways that story ends.
The last song I listened to was the one Whitney sang on the Oprah Winfrey show, after her interview with Oprah, “I didn’t know my own strength.” Again, the lyrics got to me.
I didn’t know my own strength
And I crashed down, and I tumbled
But I did not crumble
I got through all the pain
I didn’t know my own strength
Survived my darkest hour
My faith kept me alive
I picked myself back up
Hold my head up high
I was not built to break
I didn’t know my own strength
Anyone who’s ever gotten up from a fall knows what it means to discover that you didn’t “break.” Not many would be strong enough not to break after soaring to the heights Whitney Houston reached, or falling as far, as fast, and as hard as she did. Not many of us would be strong enough not to with in the glare of the spotlight she stood under for most of her adult life.
But the truth is, we’re all “built to break” sooner or later. If I’m sad, it’s because Whitney broke much sooner than she should have.