Reimagining Whitney Houston

In high school I liked to put safety pins in my ears and listen to The Clash. Needless to say, Whitney Houston’s albums weren’t part of my record collection. That said, her songs and music videos were so pervasive in the 80s and 90s that I can easily sing every word to every hit she ever had.

I know this because I’ve been Googling her since Saturday, calling up old videos on YouTube and sitting awestruck as she hits high note beyond high note. They roll out of her like octave mountains in some country you’ve never heard of. At every microphone she approaches, her posture is impeccable, her eyes gleam, and her long, slender hands jab the air. It’s as if she can barely contain her own voice. How did I miss that?

I am of the generation that came of age with Whitney Houston. Her star was catapulting toward the stratosphere as I was making my way through adolescence and, though I didn’t actively dislike her, I never really connected to her, either. She seemed so perfect, so polished, so happy. I was a teenager moving between parents, changing high schools, and losing a brother, and, though deep down I really wanted to feel the greatest love of all, when that song came on the radio, I always changed the station.

That’s until I checked my Twitter feed on Saturday night while out to dinner with my husband. I hadn’t thought about Whitney Houston for at least 15 years. Sure, I’d seen her face on tabloid covers at the check-out line, and there was some uproar a few years back about her saying “Crack is whack” to Diane Sawyer. I didn’t care. To me, to a lot of people, Whitney Houston had become nothing more than a sad footnote in the annals of pop super-stardom, a cautionary tale of limitless potential wasted to nothing. Bobby Brown was always implicated, if not considered directly responsible.

When I read the first tweet about her — “Whitney Houston, RIP” — I was confused. Was it a joke? And then I read another and another. My husband was in the restroom, so I turned to the two women sitting at a nearby table and said, “I’m sorry to interrupt, but did you hear? Whitney Houston died.”

“No!” they said, their eyes widening. “What happened?” Soon we were bent over our small tables, sharing information gleaned from our phones. When my husband returned, the four of us, perfect strangers, talked about Houston for a while, then raised our glasses in her memory, and retreated back into our separate worlds. By 8 p.m. the next night, our three kids were in bed, and I was on the couch, glued to the Grammys. I’d toted my laptop into the living room, logged onto Twitter, typed in #grammys, and started following the thoughts of hundreds of people I’ll never meet. I haven’t watched the Grammys in eons, and aside from “Rhinestone Cowboy” by Glen Campbell, couldn’t have sung along with any of the performers.

And yet, I felt weirdly at home. Since Saturday, I’d been surrounded by virtual strangers walking me back in time and into a love of music I’d let slide a long time ago. What I came to realize about Houston was that she was never perfect; she was just made to look that way. When LL Cool J presented the 1993 clip of Houston singing “I Will Always Love You,” I saw for the first time how hard it must have all been — the overwhelming power of that voice, and the struggle to live up to what the world wanted her to be. Isn’t that a story that any lost and angry teenager can relate to?

For a moment, it was the early 90s and I was listening to a Whitney Houston song again. Back then, my initial reaction would have been to change the channel to something with a little more edge. But I sat still and watched and really heard, for the first time, what she was trying to say.