I’m a sports writer and don’t pretend to know anything about music. I listen almost exclusively to hip hop that stopped being recorded fifteen years ago (Organized Konfusion, Tim Dog) or whatever my 7-year-old daughter is into this week (please don’t ask.) I also don’t pretend to know anything about the addictions and demons that plagued Whitney Houston. But I know how it feels to hear that Whitney Houston is dead and I’m trying to come to grips with why I can’t stop thinking about her voice.
Maybe it’s because Whitney lent that singular vocal instrument to two of the most iconic collisions of music and sports. There was Whitney’s National Anthem performance, all confident volume, at the 1991 Super Bowl, which was the forward-marching soundtrack of the Persian Gulf War. I’ve found that people’s opinions of her anthem tend to reflect their opinions on the war itself. Those who favored Operation Desert Storm see it as a patriotic tour de force. Those who stood against the war remember it as a bombastic sonic eardrum buster with the subtlety of a blowtorch. Whitney also recorded the 1988 Olympic anthem “One Moment in Time,” essentially an adult contemporary version of Eminem’s Lose Yourself. In other words, you’d need to be comatose to not feel an involuntary goosebump.
But the real reason I’m writing this isn’t because of some sports tie-in or because I think I have anything to say about Whitney’s musical contribution. It’s that her remarkable voice was always there during some of the most intense moments of my younger life. Every junior high dance was punctuated by Whitney. She accompanied those moments of sublime adolescent intensity where a dance, the touch of a hand, a smile or a scrawled phone number, made being a teenager fleetingly bearable. Nineteen-eighties school dances in New York City meant Run DMC, Bon Jovi, Roger Troutman, Michael Jackson, Bananarama, Springsteen, Lisa Lisa, Joan Jett, Prince, the Beastie Boys, Talking Heads and at least three Whitney songs, with “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” or “How Will I Know” always in rotation. You could rely on Whitney for that flirty fast song, and for the slow dance to end the night, with “Where Do Broken Hearts Go” the favorite.
Whitney was part of a mosaic of 1980s music that was more musically inclusive and less segmented by the crude race-based marketing that dominated the 1990s. A portion of this inclusivity, certainly with Whitney and Michael, was because record execs were trying to “whiten” their look and sound in the 80s for max appeal. But both (as well as Quincy Jones) were talented and transgressive enough to not let industry pressures swamp their sound. The result was a crossover that led, before the industry figured out how to package, market and segregate it, to a burst of rare creativity when commerce comfortably danced with art. Now the fame industry has claimed another life. It was hard to watch the Grammys last night and not wonder where all these painted, praying, preying, people were when Whitney was spiraling down. Bruce Springsteen started last night’s Grammy show singing his new single, “We Take Care of our Own.” He was singing to the wrong collection of people.
This is an industry that tends to people’s talent and not to the people themselves. It’s an industry that claimed Billie Holiday and Whitney Houston before they reached fifty. Its body count transcends musical categories and includes Tupac, Biggie, Kurt, Marvin, Amy, Jimi, Janis and too many others to name. Those who lay all these deaths at the altar of their “personal responsibility” need to explain why so many, from young starlets to Ol’ Dirty Bastards, have been left for dead. I’ve wondered before what it says about our country that the people who in theory should be healthiest among us, professional athletes, tend to die crippled and young. I wonder today how we can look at the music industry as anything other than what it is: a parasite feeding on the very people it should nurture. Of course, many survive its clutches, but Whitney didn’t. Now every memory I have of those dances in darkened church basements, wearing my shell-toe Adidas with fat laces and Coca Cola T-shirts, swaying to Whitney’s voice, is interrupted by the reality that my joy fed the same machine that eventually claimed her life. I don’t know anything about music. But I know that Whitney, like Lady Day, didn’t live to see fifty. That’s a shame and a sin, and in a sane world it wouldn’t be theirs to bear alone.