The night before Whitney Houston died, I was skimming a gossip website when I happened on the headline “Whitney Houston is a Bloody Mess.” The accompanying pictures revealed a familiar scene — the singer was sweaty, disoriented, her wig tangled — but this time, blood flowed from scratches on her arms and legs. I didn’t read the comments section of the article. I knew folks would joke about how busted she looked, would speculate about her drug use and mighty fall from the perch of pop stardom.
I’m guilty of joking about Whitney’s decline as well.
Last May when Chaka Khan opened for Prince during his 21-day residency in Los Angeles, she surprised the crowd by pulling Whitney onstage. My excitement quickly melted. I was embarrassed for the performer. She wore an unflattering black dress that was too tight and accentuated her bulging stomach. A friend sitting a few rows away texted: “Is she preggers?” Whitney’s voice was raspy, and she sounded tipsy as she sang along to “Tell Me Something Good.” Nevertheless, I clapped and cheered as did thousands of concertgoers in the packed arena. Perhaps they were envisioning the Whitney of long ago. Perhaps the image gyrating on the Jumbotron that night was not of an aging songstress too many years, and addictions and bad relationships past her prime, but of the dew-skinned beauty who captivated millions with the soaring purity of her voice.
I must confess that there are no Whitney Houston songs on my iPod, yet her voice was the anthem of my youth. Although she couldn’t dance like Janet and didn’t possess a bad-girl persona like Madonna, even though she was white-girl thin and wore honey-blonde wigs and extensions, she was one of the first celebrities I looked up to as a teen. I could relate to her outlier status. Many of her lyrics were sappy, yet a chord of yearning pierced her songs, accentuating the pain I felt as a lonely black girl with no rhythm, but tons of blues. Whitney was classified as a pop princess, but her sweet mezzo-soprano straddled the boundaries of R&B and gospel. Her music could take you all the way to the sanctuary — church fans waving, hands raised high to testify when she hit those notes. But it was as if her label purposely reined in those mighty vocals so she wouldn’t be viewed as too black, scouring her image of any hint of soul.
Growing up, there were few performers of color featured on MTV and other music shows, so I was always thrilled whenever a black face appeared on my television screen. Whitney was a radiant brown-skinned woman whose smile was joy unfolding. She seemed comfortable with her beauty, and it never overshadowed her music, serving instead as an accessory like her crucifix necklace and glittery headbands. Although I couldn’t learn the latest dance steps from her as I did with Janet Jackson or emulate the flyest hairstyles and fashions as I did with Salt ‘n Pepa, I still popped a VHS into the recorder to tape her appearances. She was both goddess and girl-next-door. There was a playful, carnival-like feel to her 80s videos — Whitney in mermaid drag with big hair being pursued by men of all races. In my mind, I will always see her in a metallic dress running through a pastel-splashed labyrinth, a Warhol-esque fun house, searching for a friend, the perfect lover, her lost self.
It seems as if Whitney’s legacy has been reduced to “Crack is Wack” memes and pictures of the star looking gaunt and unkempt. It saddens me how quickly society discards its legends, how unforgiving we become when our icons fall off. The same people who castigated the crooner for marrying Bobby Brown and looked down their nose at her drug addiction have forgotten the gooseflesh that cropped up on their arms when she sang “I Will Always Love You,” have overlooked their renewed patriotism when she sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Myself included. America loves an underdog. We love The Comeback Kid; we just loathe the journey to healing and restoration.
Prior to reading the above-mentioned article about a bloodied Whitney exiting a nightclub, I hadn’t thought about her in awhile. There are a lot of celebrities I don’t think about on the daily, yet they crowd a certain section of my brain — the neocortex of cool kids. Whitney wasn’t a member of that crew. I knew she was shooting a remake of the movie Sparkle, but I never bothered reading about the particulars. I was more interested in hunting down pictures of Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s baby than learning about Whitney’s halting return to the limelight.
Minutes after my mother broke the news of the pop star’s death, that her body had been found unresponsive at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, a mere four miles away from my home, I logged onto Twitter and Facebook so I could find a public forum for my grief. Tragedy has a way of transforming snarkers into sympathizers. I went on YouTube to play her videos that comprised the soundtrack of my youth — from “You Give Good Love” to “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.” Nippy, as she was known, was like that eccentric aunt who helped raise us, who crooned to us, who forgave us when we stopped calling, when we were ashamed of her shabby kinship, and who was eager to welcome us back home with a ready smile and a heart full of grace. I wish I had paid more attention to Whitney’s struggles. I wish I had taken the time to upload her songs to my playlist, especially the ones that helped me survive teen crushes and heartbreaks, that caused me to race through my rowhouse, hair brush in hand, dancing with unfettered bliss. Not to build any shrine to her in my memory, not to deify the diva of bubblegum ballads, but to simply say thank you, I appreciate your gift and your sacrifice, your voice was a beacon on many dark days.
A few hours after I absorbed all the articles and memorials that I could, my mother and I went to Casa Vega, a Mexican restaurant in Sherman Oaks, for a pre-birthday dinner. I didn’t feel like celebrating, but I needed a drink to help process the enormity of this loss. As we sat on a tiny bench in the foyer of the eatery waiting for our name to be called, a voice said, “Can I sit next to you? Just one cheek.”
I glanced up to see a drunken brunette standing by the bench. I nodded, and she squeezed next to me, her shoulder pressed against mine. I was prepared to ignore her, but she said, “Did you hear about Whitney Houston?”
“Yes,” I said, showing her the Twitter timeline I’d been reading on my iPad. The woman went on to say that she met Bobby Brown’s fiancée at a party the previous night. She frowned when mentioning the late singer’s ex-husband, as if she held him directly responsible for Whitney’s death.
She said the star’s passing didn’t seem real, and she needed to go out and buy all of her albums to erase the sting of loss. Raising a hand above her head, she said, “Whitney was up here. Streisand, all the rest, were down here. Not even close.” A look of sorrow came over her face, a mixture of tipsiness and remembrance, showing me how devastated she truly was. Before the stranger could fully articulate her grief, her friend approached and took her by the arm, giving my mother and me a sympathetic smile as she hauled the brunette away. As the talkative woman ambled to the exit, she turned back to me with a wink and said, “Pipes never die.” Then she headed out into the cool Valley night.
As the door closed, I mulled over her words. Pipes never die. They may freeze, clog up, grow rusty, but never truly perish. It’s a cliché to say Whitney Houston will forever live on in her songs, but it’s true. Even now, I see her standing alone on a stage, a faint smile on her lips, hands raised to the heavens as she gets ready to belt out a tune. The soul of the world is in that voice — all the pain, longing and heartache of a generation, as well as its hope and ecstasy. At last, the notes take flight, soaring over the audience, up to the rafters, out of the arena, free.