"...And if somebody loves you..."
Like so many people around the world, the news last night that Whitney Houston has died at 48 was a phenomenal blow. For those my age, she burst onto the international stage when we were in our late teens and her music became a major part of the soundtrack of the mid to late eighties. Beginning with You Give Good Love, this girl proved from the very start of her career that she was going to be around for the long haul. Her gift was inspirational and sensational.
Having admired Whitney Houston for years, I was moved to tears when the news first broke that she had left us. I’m at an age where a lot of my show business heroes are passing away, but for the most part these have been the older stars. Michael Jackson, Farrah Fawcett, Patrick Swayze, and now Whitney are among a subset of the brightest celebrities of the last quarter century who are dimming into history far too soon. It’s a reminder of my own mortality in a way, and it can be extremely uncomfortable when one thinks about it.
For me, probably the most enduring image of Whitney Houston I have is the memory of her dancing and singing her way through the video for How Will I Know. One of the most infectious songs of 1985, it was the third release from her debut album. I never could be still whenever that song came on the radio, and I still can’t. My toes start tapping, my head starts bobbing, I get to humming along, and it reminds me of my youth when I was just beginning my adult life.
After the first decade of her career, a time of major accomplishments that ensconced her as one of the biggest star in the last years of the 20th Century, Whitney Houston’s life became the fodder of tabloid journalists and gossip columnists. Fueled by her tumultuous marriage to bad boy Bobby Brown, followed by highly publicized reports of her battle with drug addiction, Whitney made a series of shocking appearances where she was obviously under the influence of powers that were not in her best interests. I remember her performance at Divas ’99 when she sang three of her biggest hits while sweating so profusely that her face glistened with perspiration under the house lights. This was a show which was opened by Tina Turner, Cher, and Elton John, and none of them stayed to take the stage with Whitney during the finale. That spoke volumes to me. And then there was that infamous interview she gave Diane Sawyer – “crack is whack” – that left few doubts for her fans about her addictions.
It has always been difficult for me to understand why people let addiction into their lives. I know it’s easy to be judgmental from the sidelines, and being judgmental is something I’ve always striven to avoid, but I have a hard time finding sympathy for those who become addicted to alcohol and drugs. This is because they do it to themselves and the power of substance abuse leads them to prefer their crutch over anything and anyone else. They don’t care how it makes their loved ones feel when they dive into that bottle or suck something up their nose. All they can focus on is the high they crave from their drug of choice. No, I can’t bring myself to empathize with that. But I can look past it in a lot of cases and find the real person underneath the addiction.
I largely stopped following Whitney once her personal issues became so much a part of who she was. I didn’t like her anymore. Her art suffered and the public’s ridicule of her was uncomfortable for me. It also seemed to me that during the late nineties she spent too much time trying to be Diana Ross when she should have just been Whitney Houston. Her behavior implied that she considered herself above societal expectations and I found it all very distasteful. I didn’t get interested in Whitney again until three or four years ago, when it seemed that she was trying to overcome her problems and reclaim her status as one of the most preeminent vocalists of all time. When she began acting like Whitney again, my feelings for her returned and my adoration of who she was and what she meant to an entire generation returned as well.
Whitney Houston fought back against her problems and she emerged more than once in seeming triumph from them. She divorced Bobby Brown. She was evidently a loving mother to her daughter. Her bond with her own mother didn’t appear to weaken over time. She climbed back to the top of her game, making stumbles here and there, but always thrilling fans whenever she let herself go. Hers was a talent that didn’t need a lot of help to be expressed and the adoration of a global audience followed her everywhere she went.
With her death, I am again brought to the realization that no matter what a person achieves or where their life might take them, the reality of being mortal cannot be escaped. Death is always waiting at the end, sometimes it’s just right around the corner, and it is never easy to confront. Comfortingly, for most people it is their life that comes to define them. Death is generally a footnote on their resume. But for the most famous death can easily become as large in their legacy as anything else they accomplished. I find it sad when this is the case because death isn’t meant to convey the whole of a person’s life.
In my mind, Whitney Houston will always remain that beautiful girl who I remember so fondly dancing and singing her way through How Will I Know. She will continue to be that figure in repose standing on a tarmac waiting for Kevin Costner to come running to embrace her at the end of The Bodyguard. Her smile as she rides off on a motorcycle with her lover at the end of the video for I’m Your Baby Tonight will always capture the zest of what it must have been like to be her. And I am reminded of a line from the chorus of one of her biggest hits… “And if somebody loves you, will they always love you...”
Yes, I believe they will.
1963 – 2012