Like many tributes, I thought it would be best to begin by reminiscing about the first time I heard Whitney's voice--that perfect, pure, powerful, awe-inspiring instrument--The Voice. But as I tried to conjure that first note, lyric and image, and where I was and what I was doing, for some reason I couldn't. However, it is not due to a sudden flash of amnesia. It is because I cannot genuinely recall a time when I didn't hear Whitney's voice. There's no point in my 25 years that I can't remember listening to her.
As with many a gay boy of my generation, my introduction to Whitney Houston came courtesy of my mother, who would play her cassettes (yes, cassettes!) of The Bodyguard, Whitney Houston and I'm Your Baby Tonight constantly. Whether we were at home or in the car, "Saving All My Love For You," "The Greatest Love of All," "All The Man I Need" "Run To You," "Shoop," "I Have Nothing" and of course "I Will Always Love You" were on constant repeat in my head, where they have stayed ever since. Although I embraced other divas and musical styles, I always came back to Whitney's music. Like an old friend or ex-lover, we may have lost touch or agreed to see other people, but we still hooked up from time to time. And I never felt cheated.
To this day, I can duplicate many of Whitney's vocal flourishes and runs verbatim. Even when I'm singing to someone's else music, a bit of her style always creeps in. Her voice and persona are ingrained in my psyche. She is the best vocal teacher I never had.
There's no need to run down Whitney's full chart/award history--the American Music Awards, the Grammys, the seven straight number ones--we know she swept the industry like a force of nature. But some oft-repeated "facts" need to be revised. Today, the popular tale of her career is that Whitney, while coming from a soul tradition of her mother Cissy and her godmother Aretha, was turned into a bland pop product by Clive Davis and that while vocally gifted, she lacked any fire or passion. Pardon my french but that's bullshit. While it's true that her phenomenal voice was reined on her records, all you have to do is search YouTube to know live performance is where Whitney really shined and her soul came bursting out.
At her peak, Whitney could sing the same song five or ten different ways and every performance would single worthy. How many American Idol wannabes can say the same? Who else could make a hit of The Star Spangled Banner? Who else could turn pansy ass tracks like "How Will I Know" and "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" into full on pop anthems? Yes she could belt, but her talents for improvisation, lyrical/song interpretation, vocal control and melisma were almost unparalleled. Simply put, Whitney was/is your favorite singer's favorite singer, and the line of divas influenced by her--Mariah, Celine, Mary J, Jennifer Hudson, Christina Aguilera, Beyonce, Leona Lewis--is too long to mention. She is the reason big voiced, gospel-influenced vocals became standard in mainstream pop. She, along with Diana and Janet, is also the reason that black female pop stars can enjoy such widespread mainstream success in both music and film, and land on the covers of Vanity Fair, Vogue, Rolling Stone, Elle and other magazines.
I'll admit that I laughed at a MadTV sketch or two about Whitney, and chuckled while shaking my head at Being Bobby Brown. I could say that watching her downward spiral was so depressing that the only reaction was to laugh, but I'd be lying. But even though I chuckled at "crack is wack" and other cringe-worthy moments, all I had to do was pull up an old performance or listen to one of her songs and I was reminded of what I loved about her in the first place: that voice, and joy she luxuriated in while using it. It was what kept me hoping that she would work through her demons and come out the other side. For while it looked like a happy ending was on the horizon, with another rehab stint and a remake of Sparkle in the works. But for whatever reason, things didn't turn out that way, which makes hearing about her death feel even more like a punch in the gut.
While reading Twitter, posting lyrics with other fans and looking at all the condolences, someone asked why we only get upset about celebrity deaths when so many other unknowns are dying everyday. What I responded with, and what I believe, is that while everyone's life is important, celebrities live out their lives in a way that affects the masses, so when they die, the loss is felt that much more.
Stars--the biggest and best ones at least--work themselves into the inner cracks and crevices of our lives, the spaces where we are at our strongest or the most vulnerable. They irrevocably attached themselves to our happiest moments and saddest memories. At best, they inspire us to be better. At worst, they infuriate us and serve as scapegoats to make us feel better about our own shortcomings. So when they die, a part of us seems to go with them.
Whitney Houston is gone. A sad fact for her family, especially for Cissy, who will have to bury her daughter, and Bobby Kristina, who will have to go on without her mother. But ultimately she left her mark on the world, as we all aspire to do. Dorian Corey once astutely quipped, "If you shoot an arrow in the air and it goes real high, hooray for you." Hooray for Nippy.