There’s a difference between stunned and surprised. I was not surprised by Whitney Houston’s death, given her steady decline over the years. But I was stunned all the same.
I imagine being called “America’s Sweetheart” and a “National Treasure” is a difficult thing to live up to, particularly when it implies that one’s voice and identity are owned by someone else.
Since her debut record in the mid-80s, Whitney could do no wrong. A multiple Grammy winner, she also won two Emmy awards for Outstanding Individual Performance in a Variety or Music Program in addition to a multitude of industry and fan-voted awards. She was the glamour queen who seamlessly closed the gap between gospel, R&B, and pop. Reports of her partying, of her being gay, of her diva demands could not tarnish the image held by her adoring fans.
With the failure of her third album to reach number-one status, critics became more vociferous, predicting the demise of Whitney Houston. And amid criticism that she was selling out, Houston used her vocals to silence the backlash, singing the national anthem at the Super Bowl, a performance to which all subsequent ones would pale in comparison.
After that, her voice was that of the nation. And Hollywood could not ignore her cross-over magnetism. With hit films and a mega-event on television in Cinderella, Whitney rose above the cautionary murmurings of danger that followed her marriage to Bobby Brown. The predicted downward spiral of her career did come to pass after all. It’s up for debate whether her own bad behavior bonded Brown and Houston’s conjunctive spiral into trauma or whether Brown himself was the cause of the decline of America’s sweetheart.
In 2002, Whitney defended herself on news magazines [see Diane Sawyer interview here] and talk shows. Even with occasional attempts at comebacks, the Whitney Houston that the nation hearted was long gone.
We love to prop people up in order to bring them down. The overwhelming weight of living up to expectations surely played a part in Houston’s downfall and death. Even as “majestic” a voice as Houston’s could not endure that continual warfare. For a person so identified with anthems — singing The Star Spangled Banner, One Moment in Time, and I Will Always Love You as staples of her repertoire — to become like a tattered, wilted flag in the end had to be painful for everyone. As the cracks and weariness in “The Voice” began to show themselves, bashing Houston became almost as brutal as what took place on the fields of sport and the venues of war. Her voice had lost its power, unable to silence attacks from others and from within.
My mind reels in recalling Whitney Houston moments from my own life as I learn about her death: I remember singing and dancing to her voice in college in Pasadena and watching her movies in Hermosa Beach. We were able to soar into the clouds, aloft on her voice; now the air seems thick, our souls less buoyant.