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The Voice: Remembering Whitney Houston (1963 — 2012)

The Voice. When one is colloquially known as such, it becomes easy to forget that such sound emanates from inside a human being. The Voice. A disembodied moniker. So spectacularly general, simply an article and noun sans the dressing of more instructive, clarifying wording: “of reason” or “of God” or “of an angel.” The Voice. So intangible, yet generating a viewable response that cannot be contained within the body, that must express itself in paroxysms of applause, spontaneous standing, or dimmed eyes, mouths agape, heads nodding in utter disbelief of what their ears have witnessed. The Voice. An appellation, like air or magic, that implies an ethereal otherworldliness, an omnipresence so unique that the one to which it refers can never be confused with another.

This weekend, The Voice lost its vessel. 

The death of Whitney Houston at the age of 48 was as unexpected as it was devastating, and many are still reeling. I cannot recall another time  when my mother has had to end our conversation abruptly because she could not bear to speak after hearing such news, or subsequently send me a heartfelt email about what the life of a famous person meant to her:

She was there for everything: when I met the love of my life, after a hard day at work, through the happy and the sad. Yes, Whitney Houston was there for all of the events of my life. [...]

As others criticized her for troubles, I held fast that she would recover and regain the respect she deserved. I sat through every episode of Being Bobby Brown, relating to how she played down to fit in rather than make others come up. I feel that I dishonored her by taking part in that low point rather than help somehow. We love to focus on the flaws of others–especially the beautiful and talented, as it enables us to feel better about our own flaws.

I watched on September 1, 2009, when she made her come back in Central Park. I didn’t have expectations that she would be in perfect voice. I was just glad that she was back. Seeing her healthy made me feel like a million dollar bill! And I am here now saddened by the news that she is gone.

This is the effect of The Voice, of Whitney Houston. Whitney Elizabeth Houston (not Susan). Perhaps no one else has been more appropriately christened (until, perhaps, the appearance of one Beyonce Giselle Knowles in the birth record). A birth name so sophisticated and rich-sounding that becoming a first-name-only diva seemed not simply a righteous and logical path, but like fate. A phenomenon so perfectly named, even white mothers found it fit for their daughters.

Like Michael Jackson, the arc of Whitney Houston seems to follow that curious path of being black and (then becoming really) famous in the ’80s. (That Eddie Murphy’s only “transgression” was playing taxi driver at the wrong time in the wrong neighborhood is incredibly remarkable in this context.) Born in 1963 in Newark, New Jersey, Houston was the youngest child and only girl of John, an entertainment executive, and Cissy, a soul and gospel singer. Like so many black artists before her, Houston grew up singing in the church. Indeed, The Voice was a seed embedded and cultivated in a soil of gospel and soul, sprouting a flower most apposite for the time: a nearly perfect blend of physical beauty and flawless talent, ripe for pop culture icon status. An incredibly timely gift that can neither be gleaned nor instantly spotted in today’s fabricated world of reality television singing competition shows. Even if the most popular one borrows its name from her, no matter how impressive the performers, it cannot find a talent in her likeness. No, Whitney was an inimitable prototype, that which every music executive with a proclivity to act like one of Vincent Price’s more memorable characters has attempted to emulate in the decades since Houston’s appearance on Merv Griffin.

And all audiences were ready to consume her. Houston serves as a prime example of Nelson George’s ever-problematic notion of the post-soul. The term has merit here, though. As rooted as Houston was in gospel, her crossover appeal was nearly uncanny: A black woman in the center of Americana. Sexy, but not overtly so. Refined. A physical beauty that was “worthy” of a Barbie doll. Decent acting skills, as appearances on Gimme a Break!Silver Spoons, and movies showed; yet simultaneously stationed within black cultural production, as the Randy! Watson! rendition of “The Greatest Love of All” in Coming to America indicates. In all ways so readily ideal for the stardom black celebrities had not really seen before the 1980s.

Nothing, not even singing a Coke jingle, better elucidates Houston’s importance to American popular culture than her memorable Super Bowl performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Draped in red, white, and blue, Houston sang the national anthem in a way that no one has–or probably will. Houston’s version dripped with an emotion I interpret as a kind of melancholic patriotism, something I infer whenever black performers sing American anthems. (Consider Ray Charles’ “America, the Beautiful” or Houston’s “Battle of the Hymn Republic“). All she had to do was stand there and sing. That was enough. The Voice was enough. The Voice–and all that it gave and inspired.

As the ensuing tributes will surely reveal, one cannot manufacture such a natural anomaly. Try as they may, neither Jennifer, nor Cristina, nor Mariah will be able to deliver an offering fit for the goddess their careers have attempted to match. Their efforts to honor, though well-intentioned, will only show that no one can utter notes as flawlessly, as effortlessly as Ms. Houston. These green divas-in-training cannot be blamed, though. At the risk of blaspheming, their elder stateswomen will not likely fair better. Not Aretha, not Mama Patti, not Chaka. Ms. Burrell will be the best of them all, but even she is not in the same stratosphere. Which, again, compels me to remember that Ms. Houston’s life is an answer to the question: What is it like to have no peer?

Proof: Even the constellation of women surrounding her could not prepare her for her stardom. A successful mother (Cissy), famous cousins (Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick), a godmother whose royalty is commonly acknowledged (Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin). None of them could adequately serve as primers for the life ahead. Presidents can talk to other presidents. The Voice, though? As the name suggests, The Voice sings. No one engages it; no one can. It has hearers, but who can really listen or advise when the harmonies are replaced with utterances of anxiety, fear, fatigue? Two men, one whose retirement reeks of a peripatetic loneliness, the other, gone too soon, perhaps have an inkling of what it must have been like. As scrutinized as they were, lonelier is the journey of a black woman with no real predecessor. And that, perhaps, played a crucial role in what she experienced, exacerbating the curious punishment that is American fame.

She found someone, and for 14 years became even richer fodder for the tabloids, for those of us who name schadenfreude a favorite hobby (yours truly included). We watched her struggle, we saw her fall. We heard The Voice falter. Thus, we were goaded into remembering that The Voice was moored inside a person who, perfect as she looked, was as flawed as we are. She struggled as we do–humanly. Yet on the cusp of a classic American comeback that most of her fans were not truly worthy to witness, and maybe on terms other than her own, she died. And The Voice with her.

Worst Black History Month ever? Yes, perhaps. We have indeed suffered great losses. My heart aches for Bobby. Yes, he loved her. They loved each other deeply; I do not doubt it. But none of us are her beloved Bobbi Kris, truly her greatest love of all. My heart aches for her child. And although collectively we have lost the privilege to witness the The Voice, though the talent godly, none of that compares to a young girl who has lost her maternal root. And I hope that motherly Voice again reaches Bobbi Kris. In dreams, in memories. Some way, somehow.

May Ms. Houston exhale. May she find peace. (And if there is a heaven, don’t out-sing the angels too much. Bless you.)