I felt this one. More than the passing of any other entertainer or celebrity, Whitney Houston’s death resonated with me in a way I never would have imagined possible. I started and stopped this post three different times, each time trying to figure out exactly what it was about Whitney that made her, for me, so special. What I’ve come to realize is that her life and her constant struggle to remain a part of our lives in the face of serious substance abuse and addiction issues has mirrored my own family’s struggle to remain a part of each other’s lives in the face of similar issues. In that way her death for me, means a whole lot more.
I was born in the early 80′s and by the time I was old enough to understand and appreciate music, the two biggest artists on the planet were Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston. I can remember my mom and I stopping what we were doing to rock out together whenever I Wanna Dance With Somebody came on the radio and I remember coming home and singing Greatest Love of All after learning the words during a lesson on music in my kindergarten class. So it was then. Whitney was everywhere and wherever her music intersected with our lives, we danced and we sang and we laughed; together as a family, we enjoyed her amazing, once in a generation talent.
These are some of the only memories I have of my mom. I told you, my childhood spanned the 80′s and 90′s, and like many of our families during that time, we weren’t able to escape those decades without becoming intimately aware of just how damaging addiction can be. It forced us apart, created a schism in our togetherness and we were a family no more. And as we disintegrated, so too did Whitney. Despite releasing a debut album with three number one singles, and following that up with an album that spawned four number one singles, combining for an unprecedented seven straight number one singles, despite continuing to release consistently quality music, and despite conquering Hollywood in The Bodyguard and Waiting to Exhale, Whitney too struggled with her demons. Over the years those demons began to show themselves more and more and the vibrant, powerful, joyful Whitney we once knew became this shell of a woman whose struggles were worn on her face and heard in her voice. These struggles were so acutely hurtful and recognizable to those of us who loved her that many of us struggled to find an accurate emotional response. So as we often do, instead of dealing with it, we resorted to levity. We laughed when she told Diane Sawyer that if she was addicted to anything it was to making love. We laughed when she said “crack is wack.” We laughed when our favorite comedians joked that she looked “crackish” and we laughed when it all came to a head on Being Bobby Brown. We laughed because it hurt. It hurt because Whitney wasn’t just another singer who fell on hard times, she wasn’t just another example of the corrupting nature of fame; she was like family. Too confused to grasp why we cared so much or too embarrassed to admit we loved this stranger like she was our own – we instead made light of her misfortune turning this once beautiful example of natural talent into a grotesque side-show.
Deep down inside we all wish for comebacks. We wish for comebacks because time is supposed to heal. I always believed that my family would make a comeback; that time would eventually heal the fissures and fractures that had held us apart. I believed that I’d again one day dance with my mom, or belt out with her a duet of I will Always Love You. I dreamed that time would redeem all that was sacrificed on the alter of addiction. And I believed that Whitney would make a comeback. I believed that time would refill her burned lungs with that beautiful air that always seemed to flow with such effortless pitch and melody. I thought that time would eventually return the beautiful brown glow to her now dark, sunken gray eyes. But it did not. There was no comeback. The last breath she breathed didn’t flow through the same set of lungs that brought air that bellowed out into the atmosphere during a stirring rendition of the Star Spangled Banner or at the end of The Bodyguard. Time didn’t return to Whitney the voice that has at some point brought a tear to the eye of everyone who’s ever heard it.
Whitney is gone, and in her death I’m reminded of the fact that the things we lose in life, be it, joy, or hope, or talent, or love, we sometimes never again find. Whitney’s death reminds me that redemption is not always an earthly endeavor. For all of us, everyone we’ve met and ever will meet, everyone we’ve known and loved and everyone we’ve not known, but loved nonetheless, time will eventually run out and sometimes, as in the case of the incomparable Whitney Houston, time ran out a lot sooner than we’d imagined. I’d love to end this by encouraging you, no … imploring you to reconcile with anyone you’ve loved and lost. I’d love to leave by telling you how you should pursue love at all costs, and cherish those you care for while they’re still with us … but I’m not going to do that. Not because you shouldn’t, but because sometimes, that’s just not how life goes. Sometimes people just die and the only thing they leave, the only thing from them we take with us are our bittersweet memories. In that spirit, I want to share with you all my five favorite live performances of this amazingly talented woman. Throw your headphones on if you’re in the office and if your boss says something just start singing at the top of your lungs. It’s Black History Month and Whitney died a year ago today.
5. I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Live on BBC’s Top of the Pop – 1987)
Love this performance because it shows Whitney’s personality. You even see her on her MJ flow with the shoulder snap and foot kick. Also, I feel like as her career progressed, folks always wanted to highlight her voice by having her sing ballads. This is a rare live performance of something uptempo. She’s 24 years old here … wow:
4. The Greatest Love of All (Live at the Grammys 1987)
Now, this actually isn’t one of Whitney’s best vocal performances. The original version of this song was written by George Benson for himself. I think transferring his unique voice to another person is difficult and Whitney did a phenomenal job. But what I really love about this performance is Whitney’s look. Sheesh … she wore the hell out of that dress… slit down the middle thigh, big teased up 80′s hair. Reminds me of one of my mother’s friends that I used to crush on as a lil scrapper.
3. I Will Always Love You (Live at the Grammys 1994)
My favorite Whitney joint of all time. Whitney kicked off the 1994 Grammys with this classic performance. Her voice actually cracks one time in this performance – but it’s still beautiful and she still got focused and brought it on home. Bittersweet memories, that is all I am taking with me.
2. Star Spangled Banner (Superbowl XXV 1991)
Greatest performance of the Star Spangled Banner ever – lip synced or not. The first and last Superbowl I watched with my father and the Giants won. Nothing more needs to be said.
1. I Love You Porgy/And I’m Telling You/I Have Nothing (1994 American Music Awards)
Whitney starts off with the best rendition of I Love You Porgy since Billie Holiday, then carries it into the Dream Girls classic And I’m Telling You. Every female soul singer worth her voice has to belt outAnd I’m Telling You, at some point in her career and Whitney does a wonderful job with it. Then she brings it home with one her most beautiful ballads I Have Nothing. This performance is absolutely, positively flawless. She shows the personality, the vocal dexterity, and most importantly the soul. Nobody did it like Whitney and for me, this was her finest moment.
Till we see Whitney again… stay low and keep firing.