The first time Whitney Houston’s music made an impact on my life was when I was ten years old and visiting my family in Poland for a summer. My cousin Chris and I would walk past the local movie theatre and stare at a poster for a movie called The Bodyguard. I knew it already hit the States, but it had an ‘R’ rating and there was no chance of sneaking in to see it back then. We loved it so much we saw it four more times in the course of two days. I remember thinking how cool Whitney’s top lip looked as it curled over when she was singing, beads of sweat forming there as her voice carried on and on.
As I grew up and my love for music developed, there was no shortage of albums in my collection. It may have been unlikely, but I became a young Caucasian girl with a fierce appreciation for rhythm and blues. While my peers rocked out to Alanis Morissette, I quickly picked up the Waiting To Exhale soundtrack and blasted the “Shoop, Shoop song” over and over. Later as a Fugees fan, I was excited to see that Whitney was collaborating with Wyclef Jean on My Love is your Love. The dignity, beauty and control of her voice truly moved me.
Timing is a funny thing. The older I got, the more I began to listen to Whitney’s earliest recordings. My college girlfriends and I danced wildly and sang along to “How Will I Know” and “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.” At the time, critics may have said she wasn’t ‘black enough,’ but the world was already in love with her and knew: the girl could ‘sang.’ While I began to appreciate her more and more, her life had become a negative media frenzy and seemed to have taken a turn for the worse. So began a series of events that would eventually lead to a downward spiral. As the images and clips of her being erratic splayed out in front of us, it became easy to react with disdain and laugh at her expense. And while I continued to enjoy her music when I heard it, her presence became almost that of a ghost.
Call me naïve, but I was actually shocked to hear Whitney had passed. Somewhere, somehow, I believed she would get out of it. That once again I’d hear her singing her heart out. Like the old Whitney. Over the past week I’ve seen more than a fair share of coverage pertaining to her death. I’ve read comment after comment on social media sites. A number of people question why there’s been so much focus on Whitney when it seems so much of her life was riddled with drugs and bad behavior? And why does all this pertain to us anyhow? It’s not as if we ‘knew her.’
While I understand the cynicism, I can say this: while Whitney was a multi-millionaire and lived her life in the public eye, she was also human. She was a mother, daughter, sister, and friend. She was someone who dealt with troubles not unlike any one of us. She was at times insecure, wanted to please others, and questioned herself. She was a woman who fell in love, tried everything in her power to maintain a healthy marriage, and struggled with finding strength to leave when she knew it was the only way she could protect herself and her daughter. She faced demons and addictions. She was vulnerable. In some sense, she was identifiable. And because so many of us have memories that we associate with her music, that’s our way of ‘knowing’ her.