Albums of Our Lives: Whitney Houston and Whitney

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I didn’t know Whitney Houston, and yet there I was, weeping. I’d read the Tweets, watched the videos, and re-posted a video of her singing “I’m Changing” live from when she was very young and so pretty that it remains  almost painful to look at her, even now after all these years.

Back then she floored us with her looks before we even heard her voice – which – what a voice. Clive Davis shot out of his chair the first time he heard her sing backup for her mother at 19. He couldn’t believe how much energy and electricity she conveyed. “To hear this young girl breathe such fire into this song,” he said, “I mean, it really sent the proverbial tingles up my spine.”

Houston’s is the music my mother would put on the new CD player we got in the mid-’80s when she came home late from her job where she worked too many hours. She’d cue up the self-titled debut Whitney Houston and also its follow up Whitney, take off her high heels and suit jacket and then we’d all dance – my mother, my sister and me. It didn’t matter that my mother’s work prior stressed her out, because we couldn’t be unhappy once we were listening to those records.

Even then, Whitney was too skinny and stressed out. She moved erratically and her hair was probably too big for her head. But when we listened to the albums Whitney Houston and Whitney and watched her videos from those albums, we knew she was the most beautiful woman in the world, and that her voice was the most beautiful voice in the world. So, how could we not be happy and think she was happy, even though the cracks were already beginning to show?

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Whitney was good for race relations in the 1980s because she was the most beautiful woman in the world at that moment. Little girls thought so, as well as moms. So did dads who watched their little girls dancing happily to Whitney with their mothers. I have no hard data to back this up, but I’m pretty sure thinking Whitney Houston was the most beautiful woman in the world transcended boundaries of race and class and permeated through the majority of American households who bought the albums Whitney Houston in 1985 and then Whitney in 1987. Considering they both went platinum multiple times over, that must’ve been a lot of households.

I understand that the most beautiful woman in the world shouldn’t have to be a woman of color in order for white people to think people of color are beautiful, that beauty is relative and that Whitney had a particular beauty that was easy for white people to accept. Still, I’d argue that the intensity of her beauty and its effects on Americans of all races in the 1980s should not be discounted. (I’m including her talent in the word beauty as I’m defining it here.)

I’m white, but grew up attending predominantly black schools. At one of the schools there was a security guard named Mrs. Robinson. Just often enough so that you didn’t forget she could do it, there’d be an assembly. After announcements and students reciting poems by Maya Angelou, Sojourner Truth, Langston Hughes, and other black luminaries, Mrs. Robinson would occasionally take the stage and sing “The Greatest Love of All” until people cried. It helped that she had a voice. But it was also about Whitney Houston and her galvanizing beauty and power, which were transformative and universal.

Who hasn’t wanted to dance with somebody who loves her? That was and is the beauty of a Whitney Houston song from those first two albums. If you are a woman, chances are you can relate to it – whether you’re the little girl who wants to just dance with somebody who loves you, the mom wondering where do broken hearts go, the young lady who wants to know how she can know if he really loves her, or the lover who gets so emotional – they are all interchangeable. Listening to Whitney reminds us that we can and probably will be all of those women, and that, even though it was not her best song, she was every woman, and it was all in her.

Whitney made so many of us happy in moments when we needed that simple kind of happiness that also incorporates sadness like the songs on her early albums do. The small, accessible joy of dancing to the perfect upbeat CD, knowing as soon as it’s playing the troubles of the day will be banished. The bittersweet triumph of belting out a song about self-love as the greatest love with zero irony. The stirring uncertainty of not knowing what’s in the heart of the person you’re dating and being so thrilled to just be talking to him or her that you can’t speak.

I wept for Whitney because she embodied that simple happiness and brought it into so many peoples’ lives. It’s often the most difficult kind of happiness to acquire, and it is even harder to keep.

I guess that’s why Whitney’s  music from those first two albums makes me, and many of us, get so emotional in the wake of her death. Whitney sang about the uncomplicated bliss of being in love. When she sang, “Yeah, I wanna dance with somebody / With somebody who loves me,” she didn’t sing it like a request or a dream of love, she sang it like a demand – like she knew she deserved to be loved, like she knew we all did.


Sara Faye Lieber has published essays in Guernica, Gigantic, Narrative, PANK, Paste, and other places. She is working on a book about animals that live indoors. More from this author →