What does one say about the ultimate crossover star? That queen, that goddess. That searing, impenetrable, unimaginable beacon erupting from a mystical beyond, naturally gifted with gifts out of nature, effortlessly divine by way of divine effort, teeming with electric grace and timeless beauty, shattering through heights never once seen through that most rarefied of vocal talents: the innate ability to be light and dark, high and low, saccharine and scholarly, buoyant and broken all at once. For a brief, surreal moment in time, she existed upon the earth almost by magic, wading through the titanic rush of history, utilized as a shining national siren pacifying mounted fears of apathy and alienation. Painted and glossed to oblivion, she embodied progress, prominence, and prestige, epitomizing with her majestic background of classic soul singers as cousins that most fascinating yet oft-ignored American archetype: a black girl with a pedigree. For many, it was that glamorous, vibrant image of which struck the loudest chord, sticking within minds the belief they were witnessing a constant, one-woman beauty pageant. Yet, it was also the image of which obscured the genius, the mastery, the glory she emitted stronger than any other singer of her generation, something impossibly unknown to the mere mortals which she had the misfortune of existing around.
In truth, preoccupation with image both amidst the mixture of black culture and pop culture did not commence with Whitney. Keenly aware of the historical belief that many entertainers of color were seen as loud, brash, and uncouth, the Supremes and their contemporaries were buffered and polished into cornerstones of sophistication, once-ghettofied children easily digestible for the classiest of clientele. However, whereas the Motown set lavished in its regal, imperious standards that came off increasingly refined and untouchable, Whitney’s organic air of royalty was stretched and made accessible through a collision of everyday and otherworldly, where she appeared the girl-next-door with the most unusual radiance. She was, in many ways, entirely perfect for the MTV world of which she was launched, showing a mesmeric quality that escaped the notion that she was, in fact, performing just as groundbreaking of feats as her predecessors. Prior to her appearance on the burgeoning video channel, there were not many other women of color able to gain massive exposure. Yet, there was no possibility anyone could deny someone so pretty and poised, so endearing and illuminated. Even if this radiance was often misjudged as a falsehood or gimmick, Whitney Houston’s mere existence was earthshattering, a political campaign in and of itself.
It is why there lies such a tragic darkness upon her premature demise. How, over time, there grew instead of appreciation and acknowledgement of a voice beyond comprehension, an agonizing perception of superficiality and fakery. She was cast continuously as a person out of touch with her culture and community, a fool who had abused her privileges as a black Barbie doll without injecting any meaning or message behind her words. Yet, how could such idiocies have been invented when her boundary-busting appeal spoke louder volumes than any social declaration? How could such silliness been sired when that irresistible, soulful coo first cooked within the church choir was so obvious and so lucid upon each and every track she has recorded? It is there in her earliest renderings – the sublime “Saving All My Love For You” that is so smooth and so silky one easily forgets its ode to infidelity, the boisterous “How Will I Know” that collides pulpit with prom night, and, most swiftly, the masterful evocation of Sunday school hymnal that is “The Greatest Love of All.” And of course, it is there, magnified and dignified, in her crowning achievement – the most succulent, sumptuous, serene peon to romance, “I Will Always Love You.” Even in her gooiest stage – primarily on that artifact of sheen Whitney – she still revealed herself as a child of the sanctuary, deeply aware of that fine line between turmoil and triumph, hitting always with expertise and without error.
Who else could have exacted such a stirring, mind-boggling rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” aligning generations, races, sexes, and religions, bombastic and free? Who else could have challenged romantic and sexual taboos through the shimmer of Hollywood cinema, creating screen classicism by kissing one of the world’s biggest white action stars on an airplane runway? And who else could have reestablished our entire order of vocal styling, influencing decades and decades of aspiring artists who must be aware they can never touch her halo? There lives within humanity a desire to disturb the brilliance of others by our envy or perplexity of their motives. In our minds, we desire a trajectory for our idols to follow and when they deviate or do not live up to those ideals, our faith falters and we turn our backs. Yet, perhaps the most miraculous attribute that Whitney possessed was her lack of interest in proving herself as an activist and agent of change. She knew instead that her power lied greatest in her art and she let that break down walls, alter perceptions, delight bodies, and satisfy souls; she allowed her impeccable skills to bring togetherness and unity and harmony into the world. Most importantly, however, she allowed her presence to signify a shift, a move, a turn. Never had people seen anyone as mythical and enchanting, yet as tangible and bright. Never had people seen anyone as soft and beautiful, yet as strong and full of might. And perhaps, never people will see anyone as such ever again.
What does one say about the ultimate crossover star? She lived, and it was gorgeous.