You didn’t have to like Whitney Houston’s music to fall under the spell of her voice.
Lord, how that woman could sing.
Even people who never would buy one of her records — people like my dad, for example, who practically worshipped Dean Martin and wanted to be Neil Diamond — blinked fast and swallowed hard after 27-year-old Houston stepped up to the microphone at the 1991 Super Bowl and belted out the national anthem with a face of patriotic joy.
Houston was famous early. As a young African-American woman, she saw her career break ground in all directions, and she reeled from critics who claimed she wasn’t “black enough” because of her crossover appeal. She was an international superstar at an age when most of us still are trying to figure out who we want to be when we grow up. The pressure of public life took its toll. She married wrong, as my mother would say. For years, she struggled with addictions. She was 48 when her body gave up trying.
The news of her death broke last Saturday, in early evening. Within hours — minutes, if you were checking Facebook or Twitter — a chunk of the public had turned on her and the media, excoriating the coverage that treated her death as breaking news and condemning her for the addictions that had ruined her career and most of her adult life. There is a definite dark side to the Internet, and it was in full force Saturday night.
At such moments, it’s important to remember that the World Wide Web is not a window into most people’s souls. The majority of Americans, I suspect, either were indifferent about Houston’s death or cared so deeply that the loss felt personal.
Her personal struggles resonated. The media’s rehashing of her battles with addiction was painful for anyone who has witnessed a loved one fight those demons. When you love someone with an addiction, you can try and try until you can’t try anymore. You tell yourself that’s it — you’re done; you’re giving up — because he or she cannot be helped. Then the very worst thing that could happen comes true, and you’re caught off guard by the grief that slams you against the wall and unleashes that small, stunning part of you that still hoped for the happy ending.
Her music, of course, is what most people will remember about Whitney Houston. We all know how this works. You hear a song — that song — and you’re transported into the past. Your past. From the mid-1980s to the late 1990s, Houston was one of the world’s best-selling artists. That’s a lot of soundtrack for other people’s lives.
The critics’ echo chamber has reverberated with accusations of misplaced priorities in the wake of Houston’s death. Where are the tributes to the real heroes, they ask, many citing the men and women of our military who have given their lives in service to their country.
What a hollow reprimand. As if Houston were intruding on a collective consciousness that actually exists. As citizens, we’ve been willfully oblivious to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Americans who die in them. We erupt in outrage over our complacency, it seems, only when we’re annoyed with somebody. The grumbling lasts a day or so, and then we move on. Meanwhile, our men and women continue to die in Afghanistan.
Most of us grown-ups can hold more than one thought in our heads and multiple feelings in our hearts.
Here’s what I know about my head and my heart.
I can follow breaking news of the violence in Syria and still track the storylines in “Downton Abbey.”
I can feel to-the-bone weary from sad news of children in poverty and still laugh at silly TV commercials.
I can petition God for an end to the war in Afghanistan and pray that Whitney Houston has found deliverance from her demons.
May she rest in peace.
May she rest.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine. She is the author of two books, including “…and His Lovely Wife,” which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate. To find out more about Connie Schultz (email@example.com) and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
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