Editor’s note: Whitney Houston had a profound impact on a generation. As we grapple with the loss of yet another legend, we thought it fitting to honor her with a special issue dedicated solely to her impact on our lives.
If tomorrow is judgment day
And I’m standing on the front line
And the Lord asks me what I did with my life
I will say I spent it with you.
– Whitney Houston, “My Love is Your Love”, 1998
I left CNN on while I slept Saturday night, hoping that Anderson Cooper would cut into all the frenzy and say, “There’s been some sort of mistake. Your childhood heroes are not dying and your memories are still intact.”
I cried real tears for Whitney Saturday night — too devastated to whimper, too improper to feign sanctimony on Twitter. Whitney’s death is wrenching, but its shock is familiar. When we lost Michael Jackson, I was no less shaken, no less impolite. I made a round of phone calls last night as I did in 2009, but not to spread the news. Everyone already knew. I wanted to share memories. In mourning the loss of those whose faces were push-pinned to your bedroom wall, whose songs we recorded from the radio onto a cassette tape, we’re somehow mourning the parts of our childhood that have seemed to die with them.
Any given evening in the 1990s, you could find me holding an empty paper towel roll or the handle of a jump rope to my lips, singing a Whitney Houston song. I recall summers in the living room of my then best friend, rolling around on the floor, lip syncing and shaking our hair to “I’m Every Woman” and “Queen of the Night”. Or when my mother would take my sister and me to the video rental section of the Kroger grocery store so she could rent “The Bodyguard”…again. She loved that movie. I just wanted to be Rachel Marron, name in lights, Kevin Costner as a suitor and all.
Whitney released only seven studio albums. I was sure that there had to have been more since her music, that voice, that smile, those eyes permeated just about every moment of our lives. Who didn’t get a diploma (whether it was high school or preschool) with “Greatest Love of All” replacing “Pomp and Circumstance” as a commencement backdrop? I remember my little sister singing, “Learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all” when she was in the first grade, in tandem with a choir of other six-year-olds. That was kind of like when Whitney’s version of “The Star Spangled Banner” was played before every athletic event in middle school. When I first found out that Whitney had married Bobby Brown, I asked my mom if Bobby had to change his name to Bobby Houston. For me, Whitney was that major.
What about when Whitney told us that “everyone falls in love sometimes [and] life never tells us the when or whys” or when “Count on Me” became a sister-girl anthem for the ages? There was something about the fullness of that voice, its peaks, and its sweetness that stirred our souls and empowered us. Whitney’s rousing voice on “All The Man That I Need” leads me to shave a few seconds off that last mile on the treadmill. No other ballad does that.