I first saw Whitney Houston in the 1987 music video “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me).” She was bouncy and confident with the wide, universal smile of a professional performer. I was in middle school at the time, and one of my relatives leaned over and pointed an accusatory finger at the television screen. “This girl used to sing Gospel and now it’s all about sex,” she intoned. “It’s Satan’s music.”
Confused, I sensed that Houston’s career served as a battleground over values. She was a good girl going bad, maybe not fully there yet but quickly descending. Looking back, it was a silly and stupid thing to think, but in it was the public judgment that created the unbridgeable chasm that split Houston’s life in two. On one side was the polished pop music diva, whose soaring voice was itself an anthem and on the other, a woman with a taste for bad men, liquor and cocaine. Like a shadow growing as the sun sets, Ghetto Whitney slowly overpowered Pop Whitney.
However fashionable it is to critique celebrities as overpaid mannequins for capitalism (which they often are), it does not negate the fact that we need them, especially if you are gay or brown or an outsider or just different. Any minority looks to its celebrities as trailblazers leading the way to Mainstream America. Stars illuminate the path to the center and we follow them, seeing in their meltdowns and victories the dangerous, warping pressures to come.
At 48 years old, Whitney Houston joins Michael Jackson (who died at 52) and Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls (killed at 25 and 24, respectively), as another Black artist felled by the fatal vortex of desire between what they needed from us and what we needed from them.
We loved Whitney for being a church-going girl who charmed the nation with her beauty and girl-next-door approachability. Our kids sang “The Greatest Love of All” in their wobbly voices at school talent shows. She lifted us into a transcendent communion at the 1991 Super Bowl through a soaring version of “The Star Spangled Banner.” She was wooed by Kevin Costner in the 1992 film The Bodyguard. We loved her for being America’s Sweetheart and making the Black voice the beating pulse of our language.
And in that desperate, perverse way of Black America, we loved her fall. It was as if her marriage to former New Edition member and perennial bad boy Bobby Brown showed that she didn’t really climb out of our reach. On the stoop, in the barbershop and in the beauty parlor, Whitney was laughed at as a pipe-head, a trick turned by a low-down man, a ruined princess. In so many conversations, I traded Whitney stories with others. Did you hear about the filthy bathroom littered with rocks of cocaine, a crack pipe and blackened spoons? Did you hear about Bobby taking her money? Did you hear her voice? It was the manic gossip of a people who — betrayed so many times — mistake wretchedness for authenticity.
We talked about her this way because Whitney was a vehicle for integration. She was an image of blackness that white America could buy, and in doing so gave us cultural leverage in return. And to the degree she ascended we praised her, but felt an unease that it came at a price we ultimately could not pay. During the 1989 Soul Train Awards she was booed by some Black audience members for abandoning the soul tradition for a bleached pop vocal style. It hurt her deeply, and during an interview with Katie Couric in 1996 she said, “Sometimes it gets down to that, you know? You’re not Black enough for them. I don’t know. You’re not R&B enough. You’re very pop. The white audience has taken you away from them.”
But when she fell, she landed in Black arms. Cradling her, we began the ritual of resurrection and applauded her as she reappeared on stage, thin as a flagpole and her voice a tattered flag blowing in a song of loss. It was too late. Ghetto Whitney had grown too powerful and no amount of forgiveness or salvation could stop her. She drank away Pop Whitney’s voice, spent her money, cancelled her shows and did not stop until she died.
Whitney died so young because, like Michael and Biggie and Tupac and others that will follow, she straddled Black America’s double-consciousness. We see the image others have of us and the one we have of ourselves and when they move too far apart, we fall and fall and fall. And no amount of singing can fill the void.