Tobi Vail

Hello from Olympia, WA – 6: Why I Cried when Whitney Died

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Whitney Houston R.I.P.

By: Ms Tobi Vail

I don’t know why I cried when I heard that Whitney Houston died. I like a few of her songs but I can’t tell you why because I don’t know myself. As someone who doesn’t value mastery-for-mastery’s-sake in music/art I don’t know what I connect with when I hear her sing. In trying to figure it out I’ve been listening harder.

I don’t find her to be an emotionally expressive singer but more of a technically amazing singer. Listening to her sing a cappella I feel a strange emptiness or personal absence at the core of her work that stands in huge contrast to the massiveness of her vocal ability. I think it’s that weird gap that intrigues me. She fills the song with sound but remains personally silent. No one can deny she is singing the song. She is singing the song she is singing more fully than anyone else could sing the song she is singing but who is the singer doing the singing and what is the singer doing the singing actually feeling?

I hear this disconnect at work in a lot of pop songs with female vocals, maybe especially in 60s girl groups. Often this vacancy allows for irony or can be read as artifice. But Whitney Houston is not Leslie Gore or Ronnie Spector or Mary Weis.  What I hear in her songs is an extremely visceral presence of absence. It’s like she is so totally there (the voice) but isn’t there (the person) at all. And now she’s really, really, really not there and I find that terribly sad.

Maybe I hear a contrast between Whitney-the-singer and Whitney-the-person because of the rumors about whether or not Whitney Houston is gay or bisexual. When rumors like this fly I am always dubious of people who claim to “know for sure” that so and so is “totally gay” or “totally straight” because I view sexuality as fluid and feel like there is a lot more variation to it than the categories we use as our identities. But maybe it’s true. Maybe she was in the closet and never got the chance to publicly be herself. I think it’s totally plausible. This would account for the silence that I hear in her work and, if true, makes that silence even sadder.

I can’t even make the switch from present tense to past tense in my mind yet.

Whitney Houston was one of the most successful female artists of all time and as such she means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Soul singer Cissy Houston from The Sweet Inspirations was her mom. Aretha Franklin was her godmother. Dee Dee and Dionne Warwick were her cousins. Even if you are not a fan, as a feminist I urge you to take some time to think about her artistic and cultural significance.

Highly Recommended Reading:

When you say her death isn’t worthy of mourning, you are denying the fact that abusive relationships can and do destroy lives, you deny the daily battle that is living with mental illness, and you deny the terrible disease that is addiction

Whitney And The World. By Marissa Magic

I mourn the death of Whitney Houston, whom I adored. Her incomparable voice, which influenced almost every R&B and pop singer worldwide, her stage presence, which no one can touch, and her beauty, tough and sweet, moved me. Whitney … Whitney … was put back onstage before she was ready to perform – by the colossal pig Clive Davis – who continued his party in the same hotel where she died and where her body still lay. Heresy.

Diamanda’s Statement on Whitney Houston. By Diamanda Galas

I’ve long thought that someone should write an opera about this brash, brilliant woman, born a child of soul and raised to womanhood within the heart of crossover pop. She broke hearts, and was herself broken. She suffered, but not in her music, which even at its saddest was grounded in a sense of dignity and the determination to transcend. She defined a style that so many would adopt, yet her talent was unique.

Whitney Houston: Her Life Played Out Like An Opera. By Ann Powers

She made the aesthetics of black female vocalizing once and for all not only mainstream (as Aretha Franklin had done in the late 60s by way of her uncompromising Muscle Shoals soul) but also accessible to the masses, across age groups (the very young and the old who maybe didn’t groove to “Bad Girls” at Studio 54; the teens and 20-somethings who saw a Seventeen magazine model girlfriend in the singer), and across racial groups, by delivering the good news of the gospel melisma in shiny pop music deemed “universal” rather than “distinctly African-American”.

I’m Every Woman: Whitney Houston, the Voice of the Post–Civil Rights Era. By Daphne A. Brooks

Related posts: She led a troubled life, apparently. Doesn’t everyone?

6 Responses to Hello from Olympia, WA – 6: Why I Cried when Whitney Died

  1. white hotel February 16, 2012 at 11:56 pm

    Tobi, this is so great and so important. Thanks for being the only person so far on this site who has even *referenced* ‘the aesthetics of black female vocalizing’. I don’t personally relate to the absence you describe at the heart of her songs – I think in naming that ‘absence’ we lose so much women’s music that is in character, something that’s really often ignored by critics because it’s easier to imagine women feeling, suffering, experiencing everything their music describes, whereas men are auteurs – but so I’m grateful to read someone who’s not steeped in the soul tradition who’s at least interested in her significance, and in not relentlessly othering, othering, othering black vocalisation.

  2. Erika February 17, 2012 at 4:23 am

    “What I hear in her songs is an extremely visceral presence of absence. It’s like she is so totally there (the voice) but isn’t there (the person) at all.”

    I don’t disagree with your take on it, even though I don’t fully sense it myself, but I also think part of it may come from interpreting someone else’s material (as opposed to one’s own songs). Drug use can also create a detached vibe in live performances, though I don’t think this is the case with her.

    I think it’s a certain approach to singing. If you think about what you are doing when you are singing spiritual music, you are raising yourself up OUT of your physical presence and into a spiritual one. The song is not about you, it is about the holy spirit as embodied in the gift of a voice. Other spiritual practices like fasting and prayer have a similar intent: it’s about leaving your physical presence, wants, needs, aches, sorrows… and reaching up to heaven, giving glory to God through song.

    It is not the artist as person who is important; the artist is really just a lightning rod for the spirit, and the voice is a vehicle to carry it outward.

    Sometimes, when I listen to Whitney’s voice, I get the sensation of soaring, like with eagle wings. It is a beautiful gift she had, and gave.

  3. Tobi Vail February 17, 2012 at 4:53 am

    For me, liking Whitney Houston brings up questions about what it is that I personally value in music. I’ll be thinking about that for awhile and I’m sure I’ll write more about it here.

    I wanted to write something personal but also acknowledge that there are multiple valid perspectives and interpretations of her work. The linked articles was kind of more the point as I’m still confused about what I think.

    @white hotel you make a very good point about being careful not to expect all female artists to personalize. so often women are expected to only write about our lives – everything we do is read as autobiography or memoir. thank you.

    @erika thanks for siutating whitney as coming from the gospel tradition. as an life long aetheist I miss a lot of spiritual/religious aspects of culture so thanks for bringing that up.

  4. Erika February 17, 2012 at 4:53 am

    And also, when you watch and listen to her sing, you get the sense that she really LOVED TO SING. And that itself, is beautiful.

  5. Golightly February 26, 2012 at 3:21 am

    I’m gonna be honest and say that I am not a Whitney Houston fan per se. I grew up with her on tv but apart from at slumber parties watching the Bodyguard (I associate the song I Will Always Love You to that film, that time and those friends) I was listening to grunge back then. But I have always had respect for Whitney’s talent. Probably more so because I could not sing a note until a few years ago and people like her amazed me in their physical ability. How could anyone dismiss it on any grounds? I think it’s undeniable, whether to personal taste or not- she was global league with that voice. I do agree that compared to say a singer songwriter there is ‘something missing’ from pop singing and I believe the missing ingredient is the authenticity that comes from writing your own songs. Comparing pop to other music can be like comparing painting-by-numbers to the work of a great painter. But considering the art form of this type of pop, this medium, well she did it better than most. There was something compelling about I Will Always Love You and there was also something simultaneously neutered about it- but I’d call that the phoney sheen of pop-gloss- all part and parcel of that particular art form. I would expect collapse board readers and contributors and especially Everett True to write scathing reviews of Whitney Houston- that would be appropriate given the territory and culture clash- Whitney’s music represented the mainstream at the end of the day, so I’d think I was in the wrong place if CB started reviewing and praising similar music. But I also believe that it’s wrong to speak ill of the dead and I think also that the very best of the best of the mainstream has cause for an audience and a more in depth listen, even on here. So I applaud you Tobi, for bringing some sense to CB on the subject of Whitney Houston and for discussing her in terms of feminist perspective because I think she taught us something of the place women command in the western world during our time. And it is sad whenever someone dies young.

  6. kittyrays February 26, 2012 at 4:32 pm

    I feel this way about “Lady Gaga”

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