Whitney Houston soundtracked such a significant portion of my childhood.
I received texts about the rumors of her death, and flashed immediately back to the back seat of my mother’s car, cassette copies of her earliest albums bouncing off the pleather interior. My mom loved her music, and that music became popular as I reached the age where memory takes hold. Even the album covers–not quite so epic as an LP, tapes being tapes, so small–I recall with viscerality: the regal, nubian-queen imagery of Whitney Houston; the tousled, joyous, permed-up Whitney, complete with jaunty, handwritten album title. And the songs, so many songs. “How Will I Know.” “The Greatest Love Of All.” “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.” So on. So forth.
What blows my mind now, as I sit, jangled, more bereft than I could have imagined at the thought of the death of a musician of whom I hadn’t thought in years, was that the apex of her career was to come long after these nascent exposures. You can’t argue the brilliance of “How Will I Know,” the absolute ebullience of “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” (that tune, this evening, for whatever reason, especially inspiring and touching to me), but Houston’s immortality was to come with her rendition of a song written and recorded by Dolly Parton years previous, her version’s release coming after an underwhelming third album (I recall the inexplicably motorcycle-centric video for “I’m Your Baby Tonight”) and an iconic performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Super Bowl XXV. The song, a tender ballad in Parton’s hands, was tied to Houston’s first foray into big-screen headlining acting, as Kevin Costner’s romantic counterpart in a cinematic unfurling of a script that had bounded around Hollywood for literal decades. The movie was The Bodyguard. The song, of course, was “I Will Always Love You.”
As a music snob (or whatever), not to mention a fan of Dolly Parton, I’m sure that, over the years, I’ve harbored antithetical notions that, “Oh, Whitney’s version wasn’t so great, that’s some ’90s-ass pop sillery right there.” But I listened to her released performance of that song tonight, for the first time in many, many years. Despite my awareness that it was everywhere for so long, so many more back-seat car-ride memories, and my knowledge (echoed by co-workers with crass insensitivity tonight as word spread around my place of employment) that The Bodyguard is not a good movie…despite all that, I listened, and re-realized that the voice we lost today was a titanic, incandescent mountain of pure artistry. Days will pass, revelations will come. It matters not. The first forty seconds of Whitney Houston singing that song, a capella, beautiful, will stand the test of all our times, because you do not know how to do that shit so well without some ethereal force within you, without some innate knowledge of love inhaled into your bones.
The downward years are of no consequence, no interest to me. There were still absolute high points throughout. The first song of which I thought after I learned of her death, God knows what reason, was the ballad “Exhale (Shoop Shoop),” birthed of the soundtrack to Waiting To Exhale (in which Houston actually was damn good as an actress). The song remains damn lovely. The second that came to mind derives from a comeback album, was authored and produced by Wyclef Jean, was effective enough to land on a mixtape I made for a girl roughly five thousand years ago, and tonight is the tune that breaks my heart the most, perhaps my favorite, now, as I rather truly cannot believe that this talent, this considerable cornerstone of my obsessive musical fanhood development, is gone. I never did expect her to produce anything more of note; I never thought of her, as mentioned, not for years, until tonight. But. The first lines–she didn’t write them, she was an interpreter, a Sinatra–well, they’re so God damn poignant now.
“If tomorrow is judgement day…and I’m standing on the front line. And the Lord asks me, what I did with my life? I will say, I spent it with you. If I wake up in World War III, I see destruction and poverty…and I feel like I wanna go home…it’s okay, if you’re comin’ with me.
Your love is my love, and my love is your love.”
We all know her saga, and we know now how it ends. We can point fingers, levy judgements, but what’s the point. She’s gone now. We have her voice. We always did, and will, and thank God for that.
Rest in peace, Whit. Yes. It sounds now silly to say. But we never knew it until you were gone. We will always love you.