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 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?

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