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.
I was teaching an SAT prep class on Saturday, February 11 when I checked my Twitter feed and read that Whitney Houston had passed away. I let out a gasp and my entire class, which consists mainly of Asian-American teenagers, asked me what was wrong in unison. When I told them the news they asked “who is that?” What!? My heart, already broken, broke a little more. I started to try to answer that question but didn’t know where to begin. Who was Whitney Houston to me? What made her worth gasping over? I told them, loosely, what I will share here.
Waiting to Exhale. It was 1995, I was in high school, I had recently read Terri Macmillan’s book Waiting to Exhale, and I simply knew I understood what it meant to be done wrong by a no-good man (I most certainly knew nothing of the sort). So when the movie Waiting to Exhale came out I scurried off to see it. Whitney participated in a watershed moment in black female identity just by appearing in the film, and dropped hints about a possible sequel up until her death. And then there’s the soundtrack. Oh, that soundtrack! Whitney took “Exhale (Shoop Shoop)” and made an otherwise sort of silly-sounding Babyface effort into an anthem that has stood the test of time. Let’s not forget about the stirring “Why Does It Hurt So Bad” and “Count On Me,” her duet with Cece Winans that I still sing with my sister to this day (I take Cece’s part; neither of us can actually sing).
Her Beauty. Although I’d heard music from her debut album Whitney Houston, the first time I actually saw her face was in a guest appearance on a 1985 episode of Silver Spoons (how many of you are old enough to remember that one?). She was playing herself and struck up a love affair with Dexter (the black guy) but they couldn’t pursue the relationship because of her music career. She performed “Saving All My Love” and looked amazing doing it. I thought, “wow, what if I grow up to look like that?” So it was no surprise when I later learned that Whitney had started out as a model, and watched her showcase her beauty over the years but never ever exploit her body. While other pop stars of her day posed for Playboy or relied on revealing album covers, Whitney just stayed a real girl with a pretty face.
The National Anthem. When Barack Obama was elected I told myself that his victory was the first time I had deep feelings about being an American. It turns out that this is completely false. When Whitney Houston sang the “Star Spangled Banner” for 1991’s Superbowl, her rendition stirred my pride in our country and still gives me chills. At the time I was a just a kid but knew that the United States had just entered a war in the Persian Gulf, which was and still remains a scary thought. Whitney took up our country’s collective anxiety and delivered a rendition of our national anthem that seemed to fix everything for a few minutes. Her version became so popular that it played on the radio all the time (has that happened since? The national anthem on the radio?) and raised $500,000 for The Red Cross.
Whitney Kept it Real. Whitney Houston was often flippant in interviews, she loved talking about the great sex she had with Bobby with a silly grin, and she was quick to turn defensive when questioned about her drug problem, lesbian rumors, or financial difficulties. Between the 2002 “crack is whack” Diane Sawyer interview and the train wreck that was her 2003 phone interview with Wendy Williams, Whitney was so easy to make fun of, and actually provided some of the best celebrity parody fodder of her time. But it’s also easy to forget that she also shared her struggle with addiction during a 2009 interview with Oprah and how difficult it was to have endured a miscarriage with Barbara Walters in 1993. Who knows whether these brash public showings were the result of a tortured life or if they were just part of her way? Maybe she kept it a little too real, but she lived life under a microscope as best she could; at her core, Whitney was just a girl from New Jersey blessed with a unique talent that didn’t keep her from being a little bit unapologetically hood about things.