As Americans, we tend to be a celebrity-obsessed culture. We constantly prowl for the next big thing, and when we find it we latch on with all our strength and demands for perfection. This can lead to incredible rises, but more often the resulting crash is just as precipitous. In our modern musical landscape, the booms and busts often happen quickly, but not long ago the biggest stars in the business shone so brightly that they dominated the landscape across numerous genres.
Regardless of how you look at it, Whitney Houston was one of those superstars who left a colossal imprint on the music world during her quick rise to fame. Like Michael Jackson, she paved the way for a generation of young black women to make their way in the world of popular music. While Jackson broke MTV wide open for young black men, that door had remained obstinately closed for women of the same age. Then Whitney put Houston, just 22 at the time, on the global music map, conquering radio and television to become one of the biggest star-making vehicles of all time. Rolling Stone and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame named the album one of the 500 greatest of all time, and it launched her voice into the top echelon of great female voices.
That doesn’t make Houston’s death such a critical loss. Neither, really, is the fact that she’s one of the biggest-selling female artists of all time, and by far the most “awarded” of her or any generation. What stands out above all else is how widely she influenced music over the ensuing 25 years. Houston recorded seven studio albums and played a major role in several of the biggest soundtracks of the ’90s while building her career in film. But her magnificent voice directly influenced Mariah Carey and Celine Dion in the ’90s, setting a template for virtually every major female R&B singer of the current generation in one way or another.
Above all her voice will be her legacy. “Her voice is a mammoth, coruscating cry,” wrote Rolling Stone in 2008, when naming her among the 100 greatest singers of all time. “Few vocalists could get away with opening a song with 45 unaccompanied seconds of singing, but Houston’s powerhouse version of Dolly Parton’s ‘I Will Always Love You’ is a tour-de-force.” Dubbed the Queen of Pop for her influence on adult-contemporary pop in the ’90s, she was one of those few singers who could build a tour on little more than her voice, not needing the trappings of a contemporary touring show. A pop diva in every sense of the word, when Whitney sang people listened. Even when recording something as traditional as our national anthem, she blew away the competition and proved that well-known melody could be as worthy of top ten status as any other song.
But Houston, like so many others we propel into superstar status, fought a dark side. Like Jackson before her, she experienced a meteoric rise and then just as quickly saw her career flounder when her angelic, movie-star image tarnished through years of well-publicized drug abuse. Her failings were fodder for our wide-spread derision, and there are some who, having heard little from Houston but her earliest work, might know her from the satirical mockery of Maya Rudolph’s Saturday Night Live portrayal.
Now that she’s dead, there’s the possibility fans will lionize Houston in the same way as Jackson. Now that she cannot add a music comeback to her legacy, many who had pushed her to the wayside will return her to greatness as they elevate her back to the status of Pop Deity.
It’s easy to bask in the light of a star as it shines and then point and stare as it falls to earth. That’s how our steady diet of reality television conditions us. But we learn nothing from this process. When alive, we see these artists as either a star raised or fallen. There’s only one side we’ll view at a time. When they die, we whitewash the bad and lionize the good while failing to understand that an artist is the product of both the good and the bad.
Why should anyone care about the death of Whitney Houston today? Houston was a legendary musical voice who led a generation of young women to pursue their dreams of pop music stardom. She also succumbed to the world of drugs and the temptations of the superstar’s world. Above all, she was a human being who experienced the highs and lows of life, proving that no one can stand up to the idealized view we have of our celebrity idols. While alive, few could perceive Jackson as more than one aspect of his life. He was either a legendary pop songwriter, or a skewed man-boy and potential sexual deviant. But few could comprehend that perhaps an artist as mercurial as Jackson — or in this case Houston — is a product of all their experiences, not just those we choose to idealize.
Houston should be remembered as a talented woman who impacted the world of music in ways few of this generation can even conceive. But we can also identify the demons which sabotaged her and strive to prevent history from repeating itself in the artists she inspired. In remembering the music Houston made during her lifetime, we can start to understand the sound of true musical greatness. But we also learn from her public failings what happens when gravity takes hold and all we’re left with is our humanity.