I'm watching the 2010 BET Honors. Jennifer Hudson is serenading Whitney Houston with "I Will Always Love You," and it's amazing. For those of us unsatisfied by Hudson's truncated, if trenchant, rendition at the Grammys, it's thrilling to watch JHud knock it out of the park. Even more rewarding for me is the footage of Whitney in the audience, beaming at the tribute. More than just The Voice, my Whitney is The Diva, and although she graciously stands for Jennifer Hudson's entrance, girl never sits back down! While cooing, "That's right, baby," Whitney exudes, "I am legend."
In this clip Whitney looks like her I Look to You album cover, the very picture of living well, beating the clock, making a comeback. I didn't catch this performance when it aired, but if I had, I would have been pleased to see Whitney looking so good and so confident, amidst the stories of missed shows and weak performances on her concert tour. I was sad that a comeback, which started so strong with platinum sales and "a very special Oprah," had fizzled overseas and never made a triumphant homecoming.
I've been heartsick for the last two weeks, trying to make some sense of my feelings about Whitney Houston's life and death. As a gay man obsessed with musicals, divas are very important to me -- like spirit animals -- and outside theater, Whitney has been the singer closest to my heart and seminal throughout my life. Back in 1985, her self-titled debut album was the soundtrack to my parents' divorce. I'll never forget, a couple of years later, hearing the opening lyrics to Whitney's second album, "Clock strikes upon the hour, and the sun begins to fade," as those very things happened in Eric Schrier's backyard at the first dance party of fifth grade.
Certainly, the magic comes from Whitney's voice, the way I vicariously soar with her incredible crescendos. But there's something else, harder to describe -- it has to do with the expressiveness in her singing, due to her talent, absolutely, but also because her voice is so laden with memories and associations that my ear automatically imbues her performances with extra layers of intention. This was even more evident in recent years when her frayed vocals lent an additional sense of honesty, which seemingly autobiographical songs like "Try It on My Own" and "I Didn't Know My Own Strength" exploit for maximum emotional impact.
As a person in recovery from alcohol and drug addiction, I've watched Whitney's roller coaster ride with bated breath since long before I acknowledged that I myself had a problem. Watching Whitney with Diane Sawyer, so transparent and pathetic as she arbitrarily vacillated between confessions and denials, truth and lies, I couldn't deny that I related to her struggle. As with many divas, I felt empowered by Whitney's prowess and engaged in her vulnerability, but in her case, I also identified with her demons.
So now, I obsessively search for videos (interviews, performances, paparazzi footage) and articles (past and present, objective, sensationalistic, and fluff) trying to chart Whitney's journey. When was she OK? When wasn't she? When was her voice gone? When did it come back a little? When was she high? Was she ever sober?
In the great diva signature song tradition of Judy Garland and "Over the Rainbow," I have measured Whitney's status via her performances of "I Will Always Love You" through the years. Even when The Voice failed, The Diva always delivered. Who but Whitney Houston could get away with the absurdly over-the-top antics she would pull procrastinating that iconic key change?
Charting the journey of Whitney Houston is much like the process I went through when I first got sober. I remember pacing around my apartment talking to myself out loud, trying to piece together exactly what happened to me in the last 10 years. When was I OK? When wasn't I? Coming to an understanding of the past makes me feel a sense of control in the present. That's the same comfort I seek with Whitney.
So I fill in the blanks to the best of my ability, spin my Whitney Houston story as it makes sense to me -- first as The Voice of a generation, then as a fellow addict who lost her battle, and that is what I will hear behind the words of her songs. I can no longer hope that she makes it, that she's OK. There are no more comebacks to root for. Now, there is just her music. It's ours now.