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Op-Ed: Whitney Houston a shining songbird and gateway drug

By Cate Kustanczy     Feb 14, 2012 in Entertainment
It was strange to learn of the passing of Whitney Houston on my iPhone. And yet it was so appropriate. In the 1980s her albums were as ubiquitous as social media is now.
She was everywhere, her voice coloring the bleak suburban landscape of my youth like the first daffodils peeking through winter's slush. Except that Houston was no shy daffodil - she was a resplendent rose, announcing her presence in a garden of drabness.
I used to walk to school back in the winter of 1985, red wool cowl pulled up over my short Annie Lennox-inspired hairdo, wearing pointy-toed suede boots and sunglasses, with headphones to my Sony Walkman firmly in place, revelling in the wonder of Whitney. Her first album, from 1985, was a self-titled affair rife with youthful exuberance, taken with its own sense of raw vocal power and romantic yearning. "You Give Good Love" reminded me of all the cute boys I'd seen in movies -though I had no idea what it was really on about. Houston's girl-next-door charm made it less threatening and more a lovely let's-hold-hands ballad built for pre-teen ears. The magic of her delivery, however, meant it could also play well to adult tastes. "Nobody Loves Me Like You Do" had a similar quality, but it also had a balls-out operatic quality I immediately recognized from (already) many nights spent at the Met. That big, bold sound, put within the context of soul music, was intoxicating. It would lead me to gospel and soul. I became a confirmed fan of Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Etta James, and of the boys too: Smokey Robinson, Jackie Wilson, Marvin Gaye. Whitney Houston was my gateway drug.
"How Will I Know" became a mantra through high school. "How will I know / if he's thinking of me? / I try to phone but I'm too shy!" Young Whitney gave those lines a particular authenticity. I related to her sense of anxiety and annoyance, twin qualities she conveyed at once with that beautiful, gospel-trained voice. Her follow-up album, 1987's Whitney, joined with another favorite release from that year (George Michael's Faith) to produce a veritable bedroom dance party that ran every night from 8pm to the wee hours, for many months. "I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)" was sweet, sexy, scintillating. It had those crazy castanets, that searing synthesizer, Houston's vibrant voice; the song epitomizes everything that was right about pop music in the 1980s. It was fun, danceable, romantic, knowingly youthful but zealously adult. Slickly produced and relentlessly marketed, Houston was my first music video heroine. She didn't pout or pose; she wasn't trying to be raunchy or dirty or shocking. She wasn't the best dancer but she didn't seem to care. She was just a young girl, having fun. I loved that.
Despite the vibrancy of "I Wanna Dance," it was her other big single, "So Emotional", that got me... emotional. Even now, listening to it, Whitney sounds emotional, excited, joyous. And very, very loud.
"That woman's shrieking, " my mother used to complain, "she isn't actually singing."
"No!" I'd wail, "That is singing! That's SOUL!"
It was with the release of The Bodyguard soundtrack I began to suspect my mother might be right. Being a longtime Dolly Parton fan, I just couldn't accept the vocal grand-standing Whitney brought to that lovely, simple song as a precocious eighteen-year old. It sounded like she was shouting at her lover, which went against my stars-in-the-eyes, cooing, wooing ideas around romanticism. (Maybe it was all the Jane Austen I was reading at the time.) Taken as solely a vocal exercise, however, and the Houston's rendering is astonishing; she's every bit as raw, real, and technically perfect as Maria Callas, and even now, she thrills completely.
I began to lose track of Houston's career after that, as she married someone I felt was rather less than her equal in many senses, suffered embarrassing public moments and difficult private battles. She seemed to be turning her back on the magnificent instrument she'd been granted. The Gaynor-esque "It's Not Right (But It's Okay)" that made me sit up and take note. It was bouncy dance music, without the saccharine balladeering for which she'd become so famous, with a triple-helping of attitude. I'd had my own difficult moments with loved ones by then, and I found myself relating to not just her words, but to the tone she used: sneering, defiant, determined. I wish she could've lived that woman.
Years passed and I would heave a sigh whenever I saw her - on the cover of a tabloid at the supermarket, splashed across the TV news, on the computer monitor -looking gaunt or bloated, confused or hostile. I wondered what her daughter thought about all the attention, and her mother's behaviour, and if, like me, she'd danced in her bedroom to that wondrous, joyful noise. Saturday night, I turned on "Your Love Is My Love", and I wept. Whitney Houston will forever be that loud, proud rose, that smiling songbird, the girl-next-door, my gateway drug, a shining symbol of youth. Make thee a joyous noise, Ms. Houston. The bedroom dance party's on.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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