On Saturday night, February 11, 2012, I was in the basement of a neighborhood bar for my every-other-Saturday night bowling league. My team was playing against my buddy Matt’s. He and I were drinking beer, making bad jokes, and mercilessly ribbing one another’s poor attempts at knocking down the white and red pins. We were having a good time, when from the speakers I heard, “If I should stay I would only be in your way / So I’ll go but I know I’ll think of you every step of the way.” I looked up to see Matt’s wife singing the song, with her hand over her heart. “This is different for this scene,” I thought. The speakers went silent: “Fuck you, man. Put that back on,” she said. There was confusion in the air. Then from across the alley, “She died!”
“Who died?” I thought, only to find out the details a minute later. And then the speakers came back on: “I will always love you…” For a minute we all stopped to figure it out. She was only forty-eight. We all assumed drugs had something to do with her death. Some of us were sad. I was sad. Some people took a smoke break. I sat there for a moment, thinking about riding in my mother’s car as a child, listening to The Bodyguard soundtrack (1992) on cassette tape. Sometimes I’d catch her singing under her breath, and I’d smile at her. She’d stop, knowing she’d been caught – but soon enough she’d be humming again.
I sat on my bar-stool for a while longer. The moment had passed. We went on with our night, bowling, drinking, and jesting. I requested, “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)” (1987) to no avail. But I’m listening to it now and reflecting on some highlights of Whitney Houston’s at-first illustrious and later colorful career:
Whitney Houston – 1985 – Arista
Her debut album, Whitney Houston, becomes number one on the Billboard 200 and stays there for fourteen weeks. It showcases Whitney’s huge vocal capability and her ability to handle both ballads (“Saving All My Love for You”) and dance tracks (“How Will I Know”). The album ends with “The Greatest Love of All,” one of those inescapable epic songs, like Diana Ross and Lionel Richie’s “Endless Love” and Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On.”
Whitney – 1987 – Arista
Despite the synthesizers and infectious rhythm of “I Want to Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me),” Houston’s vulnerability and loneliness (which seem to plague her later in life) come across: “I want to feel the heat with somebody / … / With somebody who loves me.” And again, she scores with another huge ballad, “Didn’t We Almost Have it All.”
The Bodyguard: Original Soundtrack Album – 1992 – Arista
Houston plays a music superstar in the film opposite Kevin Costner, who plays a bodyguard protecting her from a stalking fan. The inter-racial love affair in the film between Houston and Costner is enough to make the film compelling. It became a massive success at the box-office and remains in the public consciousness because of the effervescence of the film’s soundtrack, which Whitney produced and performed on. Songs like “I Will Always Love You,” “I Have Nothing,” and “I’m Every Woman” still enjoy heavy play on easy listening radio stations.
My Love Is Your Love – 1998 – Arista
Houston’s first album in almost a decade marks a departure from her penchant for pop balladry. It’s her hip-hop album, and it plays a lot with production technique (Wyclef Jean and Missy Elliott each produce tracks), rather than relying on her vocals. She also has a new image – she looks modern and clean and sounds more like Lauryn Hill or Mary J. Blige than Whitney Houston. The album has three very good tracks: “My Love is Your Love,” “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay,” and “Heartbreak Hotel.” Houston seems empowered with My Love Is Your Love, both musically and personally. She seems primed to be in the spotlight again and making music.
Being Bobby Brown (Reality TV Show) – 2005 – Bravo
Whitney and Bobby got married in 1992 and had a child in 1993: the rest is reality television history. Their catatonic relationship, as seen in their reality show, contains moments of tenderness (the famous “Poop Scoop” scene – look it up), sadness, and struggle. Most importantly, however, it showcases Whitney’s talent for comedy and her bigger-than-life personality. Sadly, it seems her antics masked deeper issues of depression and loneliness.
Indeed, the final decade of her life is just as wobbly and uneven as the decade prior. Unfortunately, we never get to see Whitney wholly recover from whatever kept her insides battling one another. We can, however, feel the loneliness bleeding out of her beautiful, soaring voice on countless tracks that will carry on forever. I take comfort in that, and I thank her for sharing herself with us. Rest in peace, Whitney. You will be missed.