Last Saturday, when the very first Facebook status update (from Nicholas Kristof) announcing Whitney Houston's death appeared in my newsfeed, I did not want to believe it was true. "It's a rumor," I told myself, "It will be disproved." Though I knew in my heart that Nicholas Kristof is not one to peddle disinformation and soon it became impossible to deny the truth as most of status updates from people of my generation were incoherent attempts the expressing loss we all felt. That voice that helped us through the pain of breakups and the joy of success was gone.
I have spent the last week attempting to articulate what I have been feeling, why the loss of Whitney Houston, a woman I never met, has touched me as deeply as it has.
Many years ago, when Fred and I were still long distance dating, He picked me up at the Minneapolis airport and asked what I wanted to do during my visit (aside from, you know, Christmas stuff--as a point of reference, this is the year I made him the green fisherman's sweater).
"I want to see the Whitney Houston movie," was my reply. It was opening weekend for Waiting To Exhale and that is how I, and a lot of other people, thought of it, as "the Whitney Houston movie."
So we went. After the film, I remember standing in a bathroom, washing my hands, and watching these two girls standing behind me having the following conversation
"Well, I definitely think I am more of a Savannah, while you are more like--"
"Oh, I am definitely Savannah! If anything, you are more like--"
"How can you say that? I am SO Savannah!"
And at the time, two thoughts went through my head.
The first was: Um, duh, clearly Angela Bassett's character of Bernadine was the best and most relatable, what is your problem?
The second, the one which I ran out of the bathroom to tell Fred, was: These two blonde, white girls are fighting with each other because they both want to be Whitney Houston.
I remember thinking those girls were crazy, but, let's be honest here, were those girls in the bathroom all that different from the rest of us? Haven't we all, at some point, wished we were Whitney?
Now that she is gone, I feel like that was one of Whitney Houston's special talents, her ability to make people empathize with her, to feel what she was feeling, to feel like she was just like us, even though most of us would be so lucky to have an ounce of what she had. She made us want to be her.
She wasn't that much older than I, but when she first came on the scene all those years ago, the span of years was enough to place her in a world I could only imagine, but which she brought alive and made real for me. A girl couldn't know if the boy she liked really loved her and children were the future! Her voice was amazing and enviable. Her body and face were amazing and enviable. And her cousin was Dionne Warwick, this woman was practically royalty in my teenage mind.
What I couldn't appreciate then, because I was so very young, was what an amazing artist she was. In the past week, what has struck me is not the amazing instrument that was her voice, but the way in which she used it, the emotion and feeling she brought to it. At twenty-one years old, she probably hadn't had an affair with a married man, but you wouldn't know she hadn't lived it when you listened to Saving All My Love For You. And maybe that, her ability to sink down deep into the song and feel whatever it required her to feel is what killed her.
Because the price you pay for being a performer is high. An acting teacher I had once said, "we traffic in truth." Yes, you get the indescribable and fantastic experience of performing for an audience. But the price you pay is you have to feel things that a lot of the time you really would prefer not to feel. It's called acting, singing, performing, but really, it's just feeling in front of others for their entertainment. When it goes well, you get their applause (which, I won't lie, is awesome). But that applause doesn't always cancel out the pain.
Many people have talked about Whitney Houston's marriage and her drug use and suggested that those were responsible for her untimely death. I don't disagree with them. However, the thing I think about is a commercial I saw as a child, a commercial for the film The Rose, where all you saw was a rose being shaken and losing petals while a voiceover said, "She gave and gave until she couldn't give anymore." I feel like that is an apt description of Whitney Houston, that she kept giving even as she fell to pieces before our eyes, and then her body gave out, as bodies do.
I worry that all this sounds so pretentious and self-aggrandizing on my part, that it sounds like I think I knew what was in her heart, as if I knew her. But I know a bit about performing and I know a bit about feeling things intensely even though it rips you up inside and I know a bit about addiction and I guess this gets back to what I was saying earlier, about her ability to engender empathy. She was more than just an artist in the public eye. For a brief moment, when listening to her sing, she made us feel what she felt. As I said, she was there, at least in song, for our breakups and our triumphs. How could we not believe we knew her a little bit?