I fell in love with Whitney Houston when I was about 12 or 13 years old. I remember seeing the video for her first American single, “You Give Good Love”, off of her eponymous debut album, and despite my fumbling understanding of concepts like love, romance, and feminine beauty, I think my heart melted. This beautiful young woman, with a voice unlike anything I had heard before, seemed to reach me emotionally in ways which I was still too young to understand or fully appreciate.
We all know what happened for her after that first hit single, and I can recall many small details of how Whitney remained a part of my life, on and off, for the next twenty-odd years. I saw her in concert, twice, in the pre-Bobby Brown years. I remember that the Cosby kids had posters of her on their bedroom walls on “The Cosby Show”. I watched Whitney at the Super Bowl singing the National Anthem in the most extraordinary recording of that piece, which I doubt will ever be bested. And I can remember being in a club in London in the late 90’s, and having a DJ play several of the tunes off of her albums “The Bodyguard” and “My Love Is Your Love” back-to-back, to the delight of the club-goers.
The list could go on, but you get the idea. There is no question that others, more qualified than I, are better-able to speak about her talent and her influence on many aspects of music and media, or how she was perceived by the black community, or her personal problems, or her struggles with substance addiction which appear to have finally cost her her life. While I knew upon hearing the news of her death on Saturday evening that I would feel compelled to write a blog post about her today, I knew that all of these things would be addressed at length by others, leaving me a bit unsure of what to say, yet feeling as though I had to say something.
Last evening heading back into town from an afternoon spent with friends, my driving companion and I heard one of Whitney’s last singles, “I Look To You”, from the album of the same name. Even among those who would consider themselves aficionados of her work, it is a wrenching recording to listen to, for the vocal feats which Whitney was once capable of before her descent into chaos were gone. That recording, which was poignant for revealing both the weakness and the remaining strength in Whitney’s voice, is perhaps too painful to really listen to now from a lyrical perspective, for in it the singer tells us that she does not know if she is going to live or die.
And yet hearing that recording I became very aware of something which I had always known, but perhaps had always failed to fully appreciate: Whitney Houston both deeply loved and deeply believed in God.
There is no question that Whitney expressed her belief and love imperfectly as all Christians do. Her falls are only the more apparent to us because she was so famous, so often in the public eye, and gifted with so many things: beauty, wealth, family, friends, and that indescribable voice. If she was simply a divorced housewife from New Jersey who sang in her local church choir, her passing would probably not have affected anyone outside of her immediate circle.
Christianity is not, though some would have you think so, a guarantee of personal perfection and contentment. If someone comes to you and suggests that true Christians do not sin or suffer, check that person for horns and a cloven hoof, and then run, do not walk, the other way. For if I do not sin, and then suffer the results of my sinfulness, then I have no need of forgiveness. And if I have no need of forgiveness, then I have no need of God, either.
Whitney Houston clearly needed God in her life, and more importantly she did not deny it – she knew it. You cannot listen to the aforementioned “I Look To You”, or her recording of “I Love The Lord” off of “The Preacher’s Wife” soundtrack, and not be aware of how much she needed Him. Unfortunately, she being as we all are, both mortal flesh and immortal soul, sometimes the flesh took over.
She made her own, voluntary choices, though addiction ultimately becomes a self-perpetuating problem; many of her choices were very bad choices indeed, and she had to deal with the consequences of them. Yet like all of us, she was imperfect, and in need of God’s Divine Mercy. It is self-evident in her more spiritual songs that she knew this, but it is also apparent in some of her secular music as well, for no one could experience the joy of listening to a voice such as hers, reveling in the abilities she had been given like a bird on the wing, and not have at least some inkling that the singer was grateful for having been so blessed.
Perhaps in a society so obsessed with discussing those utterly lacking in talent of any kind, the inability of someone such as Whitney with so many resources available to help her deal with her demons should make all of us comparatively ordinary people aware of how very fortunate we are not to be rich and famous, or particularly talented. Indeed, such talent as hers so often proves far too great a burden for a mere human being to bear. We can all think of great artists, writers, musicians, architects, and so forth, who seemed to have this unbelievable facility for their craft, and yet they simply wore themselves out in one way or another, trying to figure out how to cope with it.
I am so sorry and saddened for Whitney’s family that this has been the case. Yet I am also grateful to her for what she has given me and others to marvel and wonder at, in her best recordings and performances. God willing, perhaps one day we will have the opportunity to hear her powerful and magnificent voice made whole once again, soaring out over entire choirs of angels.
1963 – 2012