by Lorrie Irby Jackson
In every generation, there are a few artists who transcend the trends, break through style barriers and earn the coveted title of “superstar,” distinguished from their peers by talent, charisma and other intangible qualities that enrapture audiences and catapult them into levels of fame and fortune the rest of us can only dream about. Practically all genres of music have them, and when I was a teenager, my favorite female performer happened to be Whitney Houston.
After reading a friend’s incredulous text ---“Girl, Whitney Houston is DEAD?”---I joined millions of other fans and plunged into sadness. How, within weeks of completing a film and just hours away from the broadcast of the Grammy Awards, did this happen to her? Why, at the mere age of 48, did Whitney leave a mother, a daughter, two older brothers and countless admirers grasping for answers and grieving the void she left behind?
It may be hard for those under the age of 30 to believe, but back in the day, Ms. Whitney Houston ---who in recent years became better known for her addictions, outlandishness (“I make too much money to ever smoke crack….crack is wack”) and a tumultuous marriage rather than the talents that put her in the spotlight to begin with---was easily the hottest female entertainer on the planet. A church-cultivated NJ native and the only daughter of an entertainment executive and a gospel singer,Ms. Houston sang in the choir as a child and began modeling as a teen. By the age of 20, had parlayed her gorgeousness and that multi-octave, supple soprano into a recording deal with Arista Records.
To the world at large, Whitney Elizabeth Houston was an effervescent entertainer, but to us 80s Babies, she was sublime. She was a role model us teens could look up to and we defined our generation through her hits. With verve and vivaciousness, she showed us that if we followed our hearts and cultivated our gifts, not even society’s artificially-erected boundaries of race and sex could destroy our dreams.
We cheered with Whitney as she won multiple awards and packed out box offices and concert venues, adapting her maturing musical catalog to our own personal milestones. We lived vicariously through the sophisticated songstress, who never needed to overplay sex appeal, garish costumes or gimmicks to stand out. For anyone who was in the range of her voice, that creamy croon was enough.
In later years, it became painfully obvious that anxieties and dysfunctional relationships led to self-medication, which spiraled into the drug and alcohol abuse that eclipsed her gift of song. But even as she became a one-woman reality show candidate---thanks to an angelic voice that deflated from fierce to fragile, along with erratic mood swings that stunted her final musical comeback---I still championed Whitney’s efforts. And I held out hope that, one day, just maybe, she’d remember the powerful mantra set to music that appeared on her self-titled her debut album--- “Learning to love yourself, it is the greatest love of all."
Lorrie Irby Jackson is a freelance writer and a member of the Briefing Moms Panel. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org