Trying to think with structure about an artist like Whitney Houston's ability to influence the entire world is as difficult as trying to squeeze your head in a jar. Her voice had a soaring power that transcended pop appeal and packed the gusto of an entire gospel choir. Houston's contributions to music are innumerable, and the shocking, tragic news of her death this past weekend has shaken the music world to the core.
"So Emotional" is one of the best dance-track vocal performances of our time, and that barely scratches the service of what Houston's voice could accomplish; the song also happens to be my favorite. Born for the spotlight, on camera the singer was demure, gorgeous and easy to love with her unflappable tone. As a performer, we could trust her unfailingly. Knowing at every moment -- especially in the early years, when she took the stage -- the performance would be flawless.
When the news broke that she died in a bathtub at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, it was unbelievable. Every moment of adoration, all the reasons we love Whitney, flashed before our eyes: the time she was honored at the first annual BET Awards and she crowned Bobby Brown the King of R&B; the comical yet troubling episode when she called in to the Wendy Williams show to blast the then-popular New York radio host for her criticisms; every single time she sang "I Will Always Love You" with surgical precision.
Real fandom is hard to put into words. Whitney Houston was black culture, American culture and unparalleled talent, and one of the strongest pillars in music. She defined an era and cultivated a fan base so diverse, she was lauded as an international pop star from the beginning. "I'm Every Woman" single-handedly changed the game for me as a youngster. I saw the way the lyrics affected the women in my family, and the song became a tool of empowerment for years.
Her troubles were well chronicled -- the drug use, the tumultuous final years of her marriage with Bobby Brown, the bizarre interview with Diane Sawyer -- yet we saw the unflinching love she received from Clive Davis and other entertainment moguls, as well as the dedication from her family and an unyielding love from her fans.
It just all seems so shocking. Yes, the voice had changed, her personality flaws came more and more into direct focus, but most of us were still rooting for Whitney, hoping that she would regain a semblance of the peace her great talent brought to the masses for so many years.
None of this reflection is sufficient. Sometime the best thing we can do to honor those who aren't here is to let their memory and influence live forever in the hearts and minds of those who loved them.
February has traditionally been the month when the contributions from, traditions of and historical facts about African-Americans are celebrated. In honor of Black History Month, Backbeat will be celebrating iconic figures in the world of black music.
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