One Moment in Time, long since passed

When Alex woke up yesterday he checked his phone first thing and then said, "Whitney Houston's dead" in that almost challenging way people sometimes report bad news.

"I know," I said quietly, and continued folding laundry. Wally was playing "Queens-bound E train" next to me on the bed. I had seen the sad headlines a few hours earlier.

Alex repeated himself, waiting for me to jump up and start pacing in a jagged way around the room, then obsessively check the web for everything and anything I could find on Whitney's death, from beautifully written tributes in The New Yorker to some random, typo-filled examiner article written by a guy in Skokie, Illinois.

I'd reacted that way when I heard the news of Amy Winehouse's death last summer - even though I was never a particular fan of hers.

"How could you possibly be surprised?" Alex had said at the time of Amy's death. He was right. Surprise at Amy Winehouse dying would signal an unhealthy degree of denial about the reality of drug abuse. One we shouldn't let infect the maleable brains of young people who have a hard enough time using good judgement, choosing long-term over short-term gratification, and resisting peer pressure. I am applying that lesson, here. One can't possibly be surprised, with Whitney either.  

Whitney is not a touchstone celebrity for me. I don't "feel like I knew her", I did not follow her tabloid ups and downs, I haven't listened to her music since the early 90s. I don't remember ever having heard her version of the national anthem from the 1991 Super Bowl, which has been on heavy rotation here since yesterday morning.

As a child I did not idolize her the way I did Madonna, Cyndi and Michael, yet, like almost everyone I know from my generation, I can recall crystal clear snapshots of childhood moments where Whitney Houston provided the soundtrack and the inspiration. Jumping on the bed with my sister at a friend's house watching the video to "How Will I Know?". Blasting "One Moment in Time" on my parents' stereo--I believe we had the cassette single--soaking up the anthemic message and believing its larger than life ambition about "racing with destiny" and "being free" perfectly captured all the hopes and dreams of life on the verge of adulthood. I had the sheet music to "Greatest Love of All" and spent hours with Heather practicing -- both of us singing while I banged along. Though Heather and I put on dozens of "shows" for our parents, when it came to that song we just wanted to get better not to perform it but just for the sake of it, just for ourselves. Maybe we took our cue from the song's message of self-reliance. For my sister Dara, the answer to "Don'tcha wanna dance? Say you wanna dance. Don'tcha wanna dance?" was always, still is, categorically, emphatically, "Yes!"

But having Whitney Houston sing most of these little dance/pop songs was like asking Michelangelo to help you touch up the ceiling paint that's started to crack. She was ludicrously overqualified for the job.

I guess it was obvious Whitney didn't write her own stuff. But I was disappointed when I first found out Dolly Parton had written and originally sung "I will always love you". I got over the disappointment fast. The next time I heard it, in fact. It didn't matter who wrote the song. It mattered who sang it. What mattered was the voice, or The Voice, as it came to be known. Writing in The Times Music section Sunday, Jon Caramanica says, "Jackson and Madonna built worldviews around their voices; Ms. Houston’s voice was the worldview." In the most ridiculously offensive example of using a giant word when a small one will do (is there a word for that? bombastic maybe? grandiloquent), Caramanica also says her "signature was to let her Brobdingnagian voice soar unfettered." In the Chicago Tribune yesterday Greg Kot describes "an ache shading the hosanna vibration in her voice, the one she brought with her from church when she was just a girl studying with her mother." Those otherworldly tones are there, in the gospel background, and yet in the competition between Whitney and Mariah (for me, never a contest), the word "angelic", so often used to describe Whitney's voice, served Mariah's better.  The All I Want for Christmas is You-crooner was flawless, too, as a vocalist, lovely, but a little bit light. Not just in subject matter. Whitney had the same technical virtuosity, but she didn't skip and trill over the notes like Mariah; they came from a deeper place. She had more soul. But even with all that soul, the notes came out sounding effortless. 

In the Chicago Tribune piece, Kot writes about Whitney's version of the National Anthem at the 1991 Superbowl. How she transformed it into a "mini-opera". Even in the "triumphant finish"--and it truly is--more on that later --"she never appeared to be straining or showboating." In other words, she never did the vocal equivalent of using a word like Brobdingnagian.

In appearance, too, she was never showboating. In her tank tops and headband, blazers, or even the white gowns she wore for awards shows, she was glamorous but understated, relaxed, focused more on the song's beauty than her own. The songs may have been overproduced, (and, in my opinion, she never had enough good ones to match her talent) but she herself never was. If ever there was an example of someone who didn't need the flashing lights, the sexy costumes, the background dancers--the whole smoke and mirrors spectacle--it was her. 

Whitney didn't need the larger-than-life theatrics; she had the larger-than-life voice. It was so big, so full of emotion--and she herself was so gorgeous--she could give us chills singing while sitting in a kitchen chair wearing a business suit. In fact she did, in the video for I Will Always Love You for The Bodyguard Soundtrack.  Who else could pull that off? The kitchen chair even goes out in the snowy woods at the end, but she's still planted on it, belting out those transcendent high notes in the song's climax. Back to the piece in The Times again, she was: "a freakishly gifted athlete leapfrogging everyone around her".

Given that prowess, that freakish gift, it seems fitting that it was Whitney who recorded and released "One Moment in Time" as the theme song for Summer Olympics in 1988.  Like the swimmers and runners and gymnasts competing on the ground in Seoul, South Korea--"racing with destiny"--Whitney was a master, one who would always stick the landing. Maybe for every flawless live performance there were 100 botched rehearsals, like Thomas Edison's 1000 failed attempts at creating a light bulb. She certainly had the training, the background and the chops. The entirety of the voice didn't come from nowhere. But when she sang, it didn't seem like there was ever a risk of tripping, or slipping, or not quite hitting all the high notes. Watching Whitney you were watching a master, who couldn't fail. That she seemed to fail so miserably in her private life, so publicly, was all the harder to watch.

A master has to work hard, or he or she won't get anywhere. Even Einstein famously reported his willingness to "stick with problems longer". People always point out that Michael Jordan spent more time doing drills than anyone else on the team. But still, there's something about God-given talent that elevates the rest of us, just to be in its presence. There is an incredible amount of joy generated by watching a natural. You don't have to tense up when the suspense begins to build. You just let yourself be swept away. Like reading Fitzgerald. Or listening to Obama give a speech. Watching Michael Jackson dance. Seeing Michelle Kwan skate. Maybe like watching Babe Ruth play ball or Einstein scratch away at the theory of relativity. Even at the most intense moments, the do-or-die turning points, when the stakes are unbearably high, the bases loaded, the stadium silent -- you take one look at them and you can almost hear them whisper, "Don't worry, I got this." The greats in every field have all kinds of other skills--discipline, willpower, resilience--and they clock more hours out on the field or on the courts or in thelab than anyone else, but what's so transfixing about them is not their hard work so much as the beauty of their raw, natural talent. Bearing witness to it you feel as though you're in the presence of  a kind of grace.

I won't take bittersweet memories of Whitney with me; I didn't know her. I am sorry she's gone. I'm sad for her family and friends, and for her. Sad that when she sang "My finest day is yet unknown" in the Olympic anthem twenty-five years ago, that probably was--to the world at least--in fact her finest day, and that by the time she died, that day was long since over. 

When Kurt Cobain died in April 1994, I was a senior in high school, about to turn 18. I don't fault myself for over-reacting to his death at the time. Overreacting is a trademark of adolescence. And this was the guy who'd acted out our impossible rage and confusion, who screamed, "I feel stupid and contagious" when we were just starting high school, when that's how we felt every hour. After he died, a reviewer in, I think, Spin, wrote a bit about Kurt's turmoils and ended with something that felt comforting to me to hear. "We were lucky to have had him for as long as we did."

In the context of an abusive marriage, ongoing drug addiction, and very public troubles, the same feels true for Whitney. When singing, she couldn't falter; but in life, she fell. And as The Times pointed out, she had a long way to go. At the end of "One Moment in Time" she sings about the moment where she'll be free. The natural ending for this piece, following the optimism of a Judeo-Christian cultural understanding of death, might be to say that time is now.  I wouldn't say that, necessarily, although she surely is, in one sense of the word. Free from whatever it was that tormented her, and from the torment brought on by her attempts to escape it.

In those moments when she sang, though, one couldn't imagine she had anything in her life from which she needed to escape. In her 1991 national anthem the most incredible part comes at the end, when she nails that high note on the last word of "land of the free". (There's that word again, "free" -- she sounded so convincing when she sang it.) That dramatic high note, "free", that's the note none of the rest of us ever quite gets. You always realize things are getting way too high at "Rockets red glare". There's no way to start the song low enough for the end not to be too high. But she absolutely nails it, more than nails it. And then, forget nailing that high note, she swoops up from there to the dominant of the chord, four notes higher, and that note just pours out, just comes ringing out flawlessly, effortlessly, soaring into the mild air of a Florida winter before the final game of the season. 

There was that brave young woman, perfectly at ease before an audience of more than 70,000 people. There's just a split second before she catches her breath to deliver the last line of the song, but that in-between moment feels infinite and full of promise, after that higher than high note rings out. She was 27 years old; her race with destiny was about to begin.

Sadly, Whitney Houston dying did not come as a surprise. Nor did her fall from grace. Time and again we ask people with superhuman talent to be more than human. It should not be all that surprising when they're not. The fall from grace is not remarkable. It is the grace itself -- the beauty and power of that transcendent voice -- that remains a continual source of amazement.


  1. I [heart] Whitney. Awesome piece on her. here's another version of her doing the star-spangled banner


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