the incomparable greatness of Whitney Houston

When I found out that Whitney Houston was dead I lay in my bed and cried. These days, celebrity deaths happen fairly frequently and we mourn them publicly, via our phones and laptops. ‘gone too soon RIP x.’ For me, Whitney was different.

She had always been special to me; as a younger woman my mom loved her, and because of that I listened to her growing up. The first song of hers that I knew was “It’s Not Right, But It’s Okay” and I remember it playing on the radio in the car and singing along to it – ‘Rather be alone than unhappy.’ I didn’t realise it as a little kid, but the words I was singing were profoundly empowering, profoundly Whitney.

Because – though she rarely wrote it herself – Whitney Houston’s music has an undeniable all-or-nothing quality to it. Hers are songs with consequence‘I have nothing.’ she sings, ‘if I don’t have you.’ And the only reason that these songs’ great, inflated declarations of sentiment work is because if the music was high stakes, then Whitney’s performance was all in. At their best, her live vocals had so much gusto without ever seeming like they required effort. Her belts were powerful and controlled; her vibrato perfectly measured. But though her voice – that voice! – made her a star, it was her charm and effervescence that kept her so sparkly.

After all, with all the tragedy and misfortune that befell the latter part of Whitney Houston’s life, it is easy to forget her infectious joy as a performer. In 1991, she sang the American national anthem at the Super Bowl. I’ve included the video above. Throughout the footage, it’s so clear that she means every word coming out of her mouth. She is smiling a wide, proud smile; her chest is plump, and she sings so exuberantly, as if she is about to burst. That sense of excitement is something else which runs deep through Whitney’s musical oeuvre – think of “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” of “So Emotional” and “How Will I Know?” They’re all songs about waiting, and wondering, and finally, usually somewhere around the chorus, letting go and enjoying the anticipation inherent in being on the cusp of something magnificent. They’re all whirlingly happy, heady, dizzy songs about love and fun, and they’re all so exciting precisely because Whitney infects them with the contagious urgency of her vocals. Over the three minutes or so of each of these songs, Whitney lends us her intensity and abandon – she makes the feelings she sings about happen as she sings them, and she continues to do so every time someone listens to them. I am so grateful to her for that.

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Three years on from her death, Whitney Houston is still much missed. She is, put mildly, a legend, and in the end, the only conclusion I can come to is that a star as bright as her just wasn’t for this world. That sounds so shit and annoyingly sincere, but it’s all I can say. Her voice was a gift, and her presence onstage was little short of magic. Forces of nature like her don’t come around too often, and so even after they’re gone it’s important that we treasure what they left for the rest of us mere mortals. Whitney simply left joy and hope, and even for a short life like hers, I think that’s a pretty good legacy.

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