Imagine if Bruce Springsteen defected to North Korea. If, tomorrow, he went on CNN—or just recorded a video and posted it to YouTube—denouncing democracy, capitalism and New Jersey, pledging his allegiance to Kim Jong-un, and saying, “Later, losers.” What if The Boss just peaced out to Pyongyang? What would happen? A whole generation of American men would lose their shit, that’s what. Nearly every man you know would be instantly bereft, as if he’d suddenly realized his childhood contained a hideous lie.
Here’s the interesting thing: A very similar thing did happen to American women—only there’s been no outcry, no collective gasp, and I don’t understand why. Still, pretty much everything you need to know about the generation of women born between 1970 and 1990 can be explained by the fact that the person who helped introduce us to the concepts of personal dignity and self acceptance through “The Greatest Love of All” died of drug addiction in a bathtub. Call it “The Houston Question.”
All right, maybe I’m just speaking of myself. For me, Whitney Houston’s life and work is a sort of Rosetta Stone by which I can decode all my most closely held views. She was my first: my first taste of art and my first sense that simply by listening to a song I could be in the presence of something. She was my first realization that, by making art, I too could project myself through time and space, albeit on a far more modest scale. She did all this for me by the time I was the age of 6, all via pop songs on terrestrial radio. What a gift. I will always love her for it.
But chances are, Houston helped to shape your consciousness too. Close your eyes and recall the first time you heard “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.” Remember how it sounded, like a case study in sprezzatura? How that voice was so strong and exuberant it blasted out a sense of possibility like a Care Bear Stare?
Whitney had labored intensely to work her talent up to that high point. I knew this as soon as I tried to hit the same notes, crooning into a hairbrush in my parents’ bathroom while standing on the rim of the bathtub so I could see myself in the mirror. (To this day, I can recall the look I gave myself when I realized my own voice stunk.) Becoming great or even good, I realized, must take some doing.
Later—along with everyone else—I watched Houston’s life begin to unravel, a phenomenon that was unavoidably clear by the time of her 2005 participation on the reality show Being Bobby Brown, notable for its vulgarity even by the, uh, “standards” of the genre. But I wasn’t shocked, not for a moment–not at the fact she’d married a sleazy, abusive D-lister, or that she’d developed a problem with drugs.
The sheer fact that Whitney had put in the work to become great indicated that she was probably not a normal, happy person. Normal, happy people cannily clock the amount of effort involved in these undertakings, and then they shrug and go back to doing things that make them happy. Only deeply imbalanced people allow themselves to get obsessed with performance and production and the rest of it. This is why successful artists, the ones who make it to the highest levels, so often flame out. The cost of success at that level carries its own poison.
You might also say that a song like “The Greatest Love of All” is so ridiculously over the top that the woman who sang it would inevitably come to a bad end. But—true confession—I don’t see “The Greatest Love of All” as over the top. Apparently, because I grew up on a diet of Whitney Houston, I never developed any sense of camp.
Of course, there may soon come a moment when my uncool love for Whitney Houston coincides with hipsters’ ironic enjoyment of her. I expect it any day now. After all, ’80s culture is a nonrenewable resource. Like oil, they’re not making any more of it. In fact, my youngest brother Matt–a college sophomore–blew my mind recently when he told me that he and his friends play Houston songs at their parties. Matt is more bro than hipster, so I understood that he and his friends are enjoying her not so much ironically, but in a golden oldies sort of way. That made me feel glad. And that made me feel old, too.
Whitney Houston’s one moment in time is over. If you’re reading this, you’ve still got yours. Make it shine.