I’ve been putting this one off, too, because, again, there are never just the right words when someone leaves this mortal coil.
I watched part of Whitney Houston’s funeral yesterday, which was live-streamed. I decided I appreciated that, and it was comforting, to hear all the music because that’s really how I’ll remember Whitney — through music, and through the legacy in it that she left.
Yes, I know. She battled many demons, just as so many of us do. She waged her battles in ways that weren’t always the best, and that may have ended up causing her more harm than the demons themselves, but that could be anybody’s story. Any one of us could have lived those aspects of her life, and many of us, I’m sure, have. Some of us beat our demons. Others come to an uneasy peace with them. And still others can’t do either.
The thing I will remember most about Whitney is the sheer, unadulterated, soaring beauty of her voice. Her three-octave range. The technical virtuosity of her sound, with the soulful gospel underpinnings. The exquisite clarity. A voice like that appears once a generation, if we’re lucky, and even when I was in high school and then college, I knew there was something special about Whitney Houston’s voice. Any time a Whitney song came on the radio throughout the 80s or 90s, you knew exactly who it was. Nobody else sounded like Whitney. Nobody else came close. Even now, listening to all the tributes to her through various media, you will not ever mistake Whitney Houston’s voice for anyone else’s.
We’ll never know what demons she battled. And in the end, it doesn’t matter, because she left a legacy through her voice, and through the smooth but somehow approachable elegance of the persona we were allowed to see in the initial years of her career. Whitney Houston’s voice and performances blazed a trail for voices behind hers, in women like Mariah Carey, Beyoncé, and Christina Aguilera, who unabashedly acknowledge it.
Houston was the first African American woman to receive heavy rotation on MTV, and every single one of her albums has diamond, multi-platinum, platinum, or gold certification. She is also the most awarded female musical artist in history, with over 400. The 1992 movie The Bodyguard introduced her as an actress, and she’d appear in a few other movies after that. Her performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the 1991 Superbowl hit the top of the charts, a salve for a nation entering military action in the Gulf War. After 9/11, that 1991 version of the anthem again hit the top of the charts, as a nation struggled through the horrifying after-effects of the largest terrorist attack on US soil.
Understandably so. Her voice — THE Voice — could both uplift and soothe, provide succor and respite. That voice could also make you dance, smile, and just feel good about your day. Whitney Houston and her voice could make you feel all of these things. That was the magic of The Voice. That was the magic of Whitney Houston.
, “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” (1987)
, “Savin’ all My Love for You” (1985; sorry about the ad before the song)
, “I’m Every Woman” (1992)
And the song I consider her signature tune (written by Dolly Parton), in terms of the pinnacle of her vocal athleticism and soulfulness (and one that now tears me up every time I hear it):
, “I Will Always Love You” (1992)