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Saying Goodbye to Whitney February 12, 2012

Posted by Skippy in Music, Observations.
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Yesterday, Whitney Houston died. When I found out, I was shocked—even more so than when I found out about Michael Jackson or Amy Winehouse’s deaths. Both of those singers’ untimely deaths were shocking and saddening. However, they didn’t hit me the way Whitney’s passing did. I followed the news and the tributes springing up on my Facebook newsfeed, and over the course of the evening, I grew sadder and sadder, feeling as though I had lost a loved one. It might seem strange to say this, but I felt like a part of my childhood had died. That’s a rather hoary cliché, but I think it’s quite apropos.

Growing up a black, poor, gay, socially awkward nerd in a place like Tulsa, Oklahoma in the 1980s was difficult–at best. At worst, it was occasionally unbearable. The only awareness about homosexuality came via Reagan’s America: in other words, we were vectors of plague and immorality. To be sure, I was a good church boy, a good son, and a good student—it was what was expected of me. But I felt lonely, isolated—like an outcast. There was this part of me that I couldn’t really define or understand. From every angle, I was told that I wasn’t even supposed to like that part of me; and, like a good churchgoing son and student, I didn’t. This was before YouTube and “It Gets Better” and Gay-Straight Alliances. There were no advocates for gay and lesbian youth in the Tulsa Public School system in the 1980s. And there was no advocate for gays in either the church or my home or in the impoverished neighborhood that surrounded me.

I had probably heard Whitney’s first two singles, but paid them little attention; however, it was her cover of “The Greatest Love of All” that grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. It was a song that got into my bones. The lyrics and the passion with which Whitney sang them made me think that I could eventually love myself. To be sure, there wasn’t anything in the song that explicitly affirmed being gay. However, it really spoke to my sense of estrangement and alienation and, in a way, told me that things do get better—if I trusted myself. It would take a while longer for me to actually internalize that message, but I think that hearing this song was a start. Because “secular” music was forbidden at home, I would wait until my mother had gone to sleep so I could watch a music video program in hopes of catching the video for the song. The video itself was a visual representation of what I hoped would be a life beyond those present circumstances.

Soon enough, I got out of the ‘hood, went to college, and eventually came out. I was still a big fan of Whitney’s, but “The Greatest Love of All” receded into the background, replaced by deep house music and acid jazz and neo-soul R&B. Her newer material didn’t move me the way her earlier work had. In the meantime, Whitney had become a punchline, a sad joke in the wake of her drug use, tumultuous marriage to Bobby Brown, and declining career. People like Kelly Price, Faith Evans, and Mariah Carey had supplanted Whitney. And then there was Erykah Badu, Jill Scott and current mega-star Beyoncé Knowles. I’d lament the loss of the old Whitney—or, as I would call her, “pre-crack Whitney.” I’d put Whitney’s songs on my iPod and iPhone, but as part of a “Very Best of” playlist. I’d play “Saving All My Love” and “You Give Good Love,” but hardly ever play “The Greatest Love of All.”

Now, she’s gone. And for the first time in a long, long while, I put the song on. I had forgotten what that song meant to me—it was an anthem of self-affirmation, perseverance, and survival. And it reminded me of why I love music. Songs like this spoke to me in a way that few other things in my life did. And I thought about the person I think I’ve become and how, when I’d listen to the song or see the video, I hoped to be the kind of person who could rely on himself and “never walk in anyone’s shadow.” I think I have become that—and the tears I shed today were for that past that Whitney’s version of “The Greatest Love of All” got me through.

So today, I am mourning Whitney Houston’s death. I am mourning the loss of such a phenomenal voice that could turn ordinary lyrics into classics. I feel like Whitney’s death signaled the death of another part of my past—and while I’m glad that I am the person I want to be, part of me will always miss that past when Whitney’s songs were new and fresh and her voice harbored the promise of better tomorrows.


Rest in peace, Whitney.

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