This one stings the most. Whitney Houston was meant to come back like a phoenix, emerging with redemption songs wrought from the deepest parts of her spirit, from the “holy ghost” she frequently referenced. Her final album, released in 2009 after a seven-year absence, led off with title single “I Look to You,” a ballad praising God that nodded to her start in gospel music as a teenager and let her soar as brightly as she ever did. R. Kelly had written it for her a decade earlier, and in it she sounded like someone ready to surrender — not to the tumult, but to the gift.
It stings because she was truly Every Woman. It’s cliché to say — even Oprah invoked that moniker in her interview with Houston — but throughout her life she has been so relatable. Even during the lowest, saddest points of her addiction, when she appeared to be too thin and otherwise unwell, her vulnerability gave her the effect of being human. That just like any of us, Whitney Houston could succumb — and then she could pull herself back up.
“But when she put it down, really put it down, the power could rattle your spine .”
When her iconic debut album was released in ‘85, America was treated to a young woman who, despite her unusual talent and beauty, read as the girl next door. And she was: the church-going good girl whose gospel-singing mother brought her up well, striking out on her own in the city as a talent in her own right. She felt like the promise of independence. Plucky. Her first singles, “You Give Good Love” and “Saving All My Love for You,” were visions of heartfelt devotion; even the illicit-affair tale of the latter track was rendered innocent through the pure clarity in the high notes — the hopefulness of the other woman who still believes she’ll get the guy. So much wishful thinking in a sax solo. And who can forget the punky, spunky sweetness of “How Will I Know,” both the song and the video, in which her quintessentially ‘80s sparkly silver hairbow and declaration that she was “too shy/can’t speak” propelled her into the national consciousness, and helped tear open an MTV that was still reluctant to air Black music.
Perhaps her most important contribution early on: she taught self-esteem to a generation of young girls, through that now-perennial talent show staple, “Greatest Love of All.” So much of Houston’s message was about finding strength from within, about realizing our best selves and pulling through, from that early ballad to “My Name is Not Susan,” to “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay” to “I Look to You.” It reflected her lifelong relationship with Christianity, but also spoke to a fundamental truth about Houston herself: she was a woman we could aspire to be. She demanded respect, even when she was acting — witness the seething dignity of Savannah Jackson, her character in Waiting to Exhale, or the resolute stubbornness of Rachel Marron from The Bodyguard. That’s why, during the dark years, the photos and rumors and odd interview gaffes hurt so bad. They were antithetical to what we knew her to be. And to what we hoped for ourselves.
Before releasing even her first album in 1985, the iconic Whitney Houston, “The Voice” had collaborated with her mother Cissy, with Chaka Khan (on “Every Woman,” when she was just 15), with Lou Rawls, Jermaine Jackson, Bill Laswell, and with Teddy Pendergrass. She was a fashion model—one of the first women of color to ever appear on the cover of Seventeen—and a Catholic school girl. As she grew into herself, her voice got bigger even when it didn’t seem possible. Whitney was not an overly vibrato-y singer — her pitch was so perfect and tone so smooth she knew she did not need the flourish. But when she put it down, really put it down, the power could rattle your spine, even on the ad-libs of a pop-house song like “I’ll Be Your Baby.” One of the best examples of her perfection is on an a cappella version making the Tumblr rounds, in which “How Will I Know” is stripped of its electric cowbell and her vocal track is left there, naked but for a few gospel secondaries. She sang back-up vocals on plenty of singles, but Whitney Houston sounded best when harmonizing with herself, because no one could touch her.
In 2009, a gorgeous and healthy-looking rehabilitated Houston appeared on a special episode of Oprah, in an interview that at the time, Oprah Winfrey called the most revealing she’d seen in her career. She was astonishingly open about the copious amounts of drugs she did, and about the domestic violence she was subjected to by her ex-husband, Bobby Brown — emotional, psychological, and physical abuse that no doubt fed into her addiction. “I was trying to hide the pain,” Houston told Oprah. And of the pressures of fame, which contradicted her inherent desire for normalcy: “It was too much to live up to, to try to be. And I wanted out.” Too many of Houston’s years were lost to the addiction and the pain, and her curse was her inherent goodness — she said she refused to leave Brown because of her godliness, her adherence to her vows, to her loyalty. Of course, she eventually did, and it’s a testament to her strength that she kicked when she did. Even through her worst points, Houston had the light in her. It’s still there, in The Voice.