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[in memoriam] Whitney Houston, 1963-2012



In the end, life is a struggle, even for those who seem to have (almost) had it all -- double so for anyone who chooses to make articulating that struggle through art their life's work.  Whitney Houston, who passed away this weekend of still-to-be-determined causes at the too-young age of 48, made an art out of depicting heroic triumph over adversity in her music; her voice, a gritless high-powered instrument of laser-like precision, was used in song after song to effortlessly mow down the demons of insecurity and self-hate in a towering edifice to self-actualization that is, in her passing, Houston's legacy to modern music's lexicon.

"The biggest devil is me," is how Houston famously summed up her life's dilemma, in a 2002 ABC interview with Diane Sawyer.  Houston was answering Sawyer's hectoring queries regarding what the pop diva's drug of choice was, but her unchoked honesty is telling: backed into a corner by scandal and controversy, Houston is finally forced to admit to the essential fiction of the powerhouse persona that she created and was created for her as she rose to stardom in the 1980s.  Could any human being actually be the paragon of selfless awesomeness that was Whitney Houston, the child raised in the church choir whose angelic clarion call caught the ear of the world and could tranform any moment into a heartstopping outpouring of sheer naked emotion?  In retrospect, its clear that something had to give.

For those who were not alive or aware during Houston's heydey, from 1986 to the late 90s, it is hard to accurately convey the ubiquity of her presence: sure, one can measure it in hit records (she sold more than 100 million records worldwide and had a string of 7 consecutive number one hits), but even that sort of metric fails to accurately get across how inescapable she was, whether radio, or TV, or anywhere else where music was emitted.  Her presence was a uniting force: if she sang the Star Spangled Banner at a football game, it would make grown men cry.  If she did a theme song for a forgettable film drama, said theme's endless vocal melismatic acrobatics would be pouring out of every radio orifice for what seemed like years.  Once her rise to stardom was complete, she was indomitable.

 Houston's origin story makes her stardom seem inevitable (performing in church choirs and nightclubs with her singer mother, her cousin being Dionne Warwick, her godmother being Aretha Franklin), but it's important to understand that the struggle that was so effortlessly overcome in her songs was a real presence in her life and her work in the world of showbiz.  After all, it was no given that an African American woman was going to get a respectable place on either mainstream radio or the then-new format of Music Television -- Houston may have had an obvious natural musical gift, but the Whitney that was presented to the general public upon the release of her 1985 self-titled debut was the result of years and years and years of agonizing grooming and shaping on the part of her label and handlers.  Houston wasn't a spontaneous expression like so many other musical flashpoints of the MTV 80s -- she was the calculating return volley by the entrenched music business against the surprise attack that had been MTV's disruptive technology.

Most people nowadays remember the music of the 80s as being all about neon colors, herky-jerky new wave and obnoxious heavy metal -- but for those of us who actually lived through them, for better or worse, Whitney Houston's slick and processed outpourings are far more emblematic of the era.  Her music represents the sort of emotion that was acceptable at the time -- overcoming adversity through strength, determination, and by being clearly better than everyone and everything.  This wasn't music that represented a subculture, or a fringe perspective; this was a voice that spoke equally to children and adults about how awesome it was to find, at the end of the long and torturous ride, a love that would last forever.  Unlike so many of the people that we now hold as exemplars of 80s popdom (Madonna, Prince, etc.), Whitney was a uniter, not a divider.  You didn't need to consciously choose her, to seek out her music, to intimately know the lyrics to all of her biggest hits -- throbbing through all of us in the mid-to-late-80s, in our darkest times, was a powerful voice that told us that if we stuck to our guns and lived for our dreams, we would always know that if we failed or succeeded, we would at least have lived as we believed.  This wasn't music to start a dance fad, or start a fashion revolution, or critique our society's powerful institutions: this was self-actualization therapy for mass consumption, a gorgeous voice front-loaded with determination with a message of unstoppable willfullness that clobbered through the morass of uncertainty that was the confusion of its time.

We all know what happened next, as Whitney Houston's fall was longer and more drawn out and more sensational(ized) than her ascent had been.  Her passing this weekend, sadly, squashes all hope that her inevitable rebound is just around the corner; her music and her message seem to have demanded that her end not come the way it did.  Worse, we all know that these next few weeks and months are going to be overrun with reports on the circumstances of her death and her final days, as the tabloid media will attempt to explain her unexpected passing by creating a narrative of relapse and descent.  Perhaps it is best, then, here in the eye of the storm, before the worst hits, to simply gaze upon the simple grace of her gift -- to ignore everything else and bask in the elation that her music brought to people.  No matter what the tales of drugged-out depravity do to her musical legacy, they can never strip her music of its obvious, unquestioning dignity.

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