The tragedy of Whitney Houston’s death stunned the world over the weekend.
In her prime, no one could come close to touching her talent. Her voice had a unique strength and confidence. There was something solid about it, unlike some singers who go all over the map with their overdone vocal runs that leave the listener feeling on-edge.
But listening to Whitney required no effort. Her gifted voice just poured out like pure water. No need to feel on edge. There was absolutely no question that she was always in total control.
Sadly, her life in later years was a different story – an unhappy saga of drug use, a tumultuous and failed marriage, and an attempted comeback that never gained traction. She was a shell of what she once was, but still, the world was rooting for her. On Saturday when the news of her death broke, Christian singer Nichole Nordeman tweeted, “Losing Whitney feels like someone just deleted the playlist of my adolescence. So many hairbursh microphone moments with her.”
I feel that way, too.
I was 10 in 1986 when “The Greatest Love of All” stayed at number one for three weeks on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. I have a blurry memory of being at some pre-teen slumber party and karaoke-ing that song with the girls over and over. Someone had carefully transcribed all the lyrics on some raggedy paper torn from a notebook to serve as our cue card. We took turns busting our guts with it. If Whitney could sing like that, so could we. Because we had discovered her secret…
There was no real concern over vocal quality. As long as you were singing from way down in your diaphragm as loud as you possibly could, Whitney-style, you were on your own personal path to stardom in your own head.
So after that slumber party, I adopted that song as my life theme, sitting beside my oversized boom box, twiddling my thumbs and waiting for it to air on the radio so that I could hit “record” and capture it, like a little fisherman reeling in my catch. Holding my hairbrush microphone, I belted it out, repeatedly, in front of the mirror in my room, as my parents would readily testify. I tried to find that deep-down vocal passion that Whitney possessed, but as a skinny 10-year-old, I am pretty sure it came out kind of…barky. I did not care. And I really didn’t care about the words, either. Only in later years would I realize that the Greatest Love of all, the love that surpasses all knowledge, really wasn’t inside of me at all. It was outside of me. In spite of me. Love, real love, comes from God. But in 1986, I was very much into singing this lovely song about self-love.
The following year, when Whitney came out with the blonde, big-haired, purple tank top-sporting version of herself in the super bubble-gummy, confetti-laden video for “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” I was ready to hit the stage in my room again. Because if there was ever a hairbrush microphone song to sing in front of a pre-teen’s mirror, that was it. And this time, look out, world. There were some dance moves going on.
In 1991, during the time of the Gulf War, Whitney sang the Star-Spangled Banner at the Super Bowl, and it was quite possibly the greatest rendition of all time. Maybe she was the first to ever go for that octave jump on “o’er the land of the free-EEEE.” She nailed it like a gymnast sticking a landing, soaring up to it, and carrying our patriotic hearts with her. I even bought the cassette single. Since then, I’ve heard other vocalists go for that same octave at major sporting events, but nobody has ever owned that pristine top note like Whitney did.
And nobody has ever owned a key change like her, either. The best moment in her signature song, “I Will Always Love You,” is that brief pause, that suspenseful rest toward the end, just before she kicks it into high gear at the key change. I was a little older then, and I had the sheet music. No more hairbrush microphones or dance moves…the belting-out happened at the piano bench instead. Whitney was still my girl. The one able to capture moments that were simultaneously dramatic and tender.
She was everybody’s girl. Our sweetheart American vocalist. The last song she sang in public was “Jesus Loves Me.” Now she’s in His arms.
I am so sad she’s gone.