Whitney Houston, who passed away Saturday, February 11 at the age of 48 from unknown causes, was America's black Barbie. She was svelte and thin, with a fixed, incandescent smile and a soaring yet smooth voice. She should have been celebrated, but instead, she often felt like a weighty burden, causing us to look in the mirror in disappointment because we weren't perfect like her. So we privately struggled against her 1980s reign as if she was the high school prom queen. It was futile to truly protest her near-constant ubiquity on music-video shows and radio stations, and so we resorted to nasty rumor-mongering about her sexuality, her eating habits and, worst of all, her music.
Whitney Houston seemed born into stardom. Her mother was Cissy Houston, a pop/soul veteran that sang background vocals for Paul Simon, Donny Hathaway, Van Morrison and many others. Her cousins were Dionne Warwick and Dee Dee Warwick, and her godmother was Aretha Franklin. She was still a teenager when she became Seventeen magazine's first black cover model; she landed her first hit, 1984's "You Give Good Love," at age 20.
She sold hundreds of millions of records around the world during the 1980s and 1990s, influencing a generation of pop-soul vocalists from superstars like Mariah Carey and Christina Aguilera to relatively underground singers like Goapele (who once made a point of telling me that she was a Whitney Houston fan growing up). She starred in several hit films, most famously 1992's The Bodyguard, which included her deathless interpretation of Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You," the biggest-selling recording by a woman in history. Yet the public's embrace of her remains tentative. People are more likely to sympathize with her later public battle with drug addiction, and her tumultuous marriage to Bobby Brown, because it was the first time that she seemed like us mere mortals struggling with our everyday lives. And yes, it didn't help that Houston often worked with producers like Narada Michael Walden, turning albums like the diamond-selling Whitney into overly processed Velveeta cheese.
Why do we want our idols to tragically fall instead of congratulate their success? Why do we commemorate dead celebrities' "death days" instead of the living's birthdays? It's easier for us to deal with a human being's story once it is finished than follow their journey without knowing the twists and turns that may lie ahead. And when Houston debased herself on Brown's 2005 reality-show train wreck Being Bobby Brown, we delighted in how this once near-unassailable figure had become a pop-culture joke.
But Houston's voice is still there, on luscious quiet storm ballads like "You Give Good Love," the Babyface-assisted New Jack funk of "I'm Your Baby Tonight," and the silky contemporary R&B blues of "Exhale (Shoop Shoop)" and "My Love Is Your Love." It's a thing of admiration and beauty, and occasionally blinding like sunlight. This is no exaggeration: Compare her interpretation to Benson's original "The Greatest Love of All." Benson's version, written by Michael Masser and Linda Creed, was a modest ballad that emphasized the folksy qualities of the 1977 Muhammad Ali biopic The Greatest. Houston's rendition sounds like the brightest and prettiest girl belting out a killer number at the school talent show that leaves the parents in the audience giving a rousing standing ovation, and the ordinary kids waiting their turn behind the curtain steaming with jealousy.
We often think of soul music as confession. The grittier and troubled the singer, the more we think we know how that person feels inside. Houston was a songbird whose notes traveled effortlessly up the pentatonic scales. She didn't waver or betray tentativeness, so we felt like we didn't know her. (The same accusation occasionally haunts Beyoncé, another performer often accused of being a too-perfect pop confection.) But what if there is only the voice, and no subtext? Then we should accept Houston for who she was and what she achieved, from her tabloid lows to, more often, her stunning and groundbreaking international success. As she sang, "I'm every woman/It's all in me."