We’ve seen our share of celebrity deaths recently. The death of Amy Winehouse hit me pretty hard, I was a fan and I wrote about it here on my blog. But after hearing about Whitney Houston, I suddenly feel like I’ve been hit by a truck.
It’s not that I was a particularly big follower of Houston, so I’m struggling to explain it. Sure, I loved her voice, but I don’t have any of her music on my iTunes playlist and would have never listed her one of my favourite performers… And that makes me pretty sad.
As the tributes began pouring in, I realized suddenly how many people she inspired (including some of my other favourite artists) and how she had tried to help so many others move forward in their careers, even though she was clearly struggling in her personal and professional life.
I also began reflecting on how her music really was the backdrop to my own life, like a movie soundtrack that is so subtle, yet, so in tune with the storyline.
Generation X was an intersection of two worlds
She was close to my own age and grew up in an era that many might find hard to understand now. Technology did not play a significant role–schools had no computers, or even calculators (which were not allowed). Gender roles were in flux. Teenaged-girls were bombarded with conflicting ideas about what it meant to be a woman. From the “free love,” Pill-induced sexual frenzy of the 70’s to the more traditional parental encouragement of restraint, chastity and marriage to a “nice boy,” it was difficult to figure out what was expected of you and what success should look like.
Houston’s music had that juxtaposition of sweet vulnerability, tempered with the stubborn realism that was such a part of my generation. Even today, I find myself and others of my age to be very cautious about the future, although deep-down wishing to experience that wild enthusiasm we witnessed in the boomers who went before us. We’re a little jealous that we were robbed of that ability to just let go and be unrestrained in everything (we grew up with the spectre of AIDS, after all).
In 1963, the year Houston was born, the assassination of John F. Kennedy represented a turning point. Here in Canada, we had the FLQ crisis unfolding with bombings and the spectre of political turmoil. The heady ideas of a brighter tomorrow were dealt some pretty harsh blows during these years. In 1968, when Houston was just starting elementary school, Martin Luther King Jr. was also assassinated. There was an ominous feeling that change, once thought to be imminent, was going to be a lot harder than anyone imagined. Born in the shadow of the baby boomers, we Generation X’ers represented a new pragmatism. We’ve always had a certain caution about the future, knowing the bulge of the generation before us was going to forever determine our own future prospects.
She blew us away
Houston’s music was always epic (with a voice like that, how could it not be?) and even in her mid-20’s she literally blew onto the music scene like a hurricane with her anthems of courage and overcoming challenges — “No matter what they take from me …They can’t take away my dignity” (Greatest Love of All). It’s as if her early songs, filled with an attitude of hopeful innocence, unvarnished optimism and genuine romanticism, were designed to bolster the sagging spirits of an entire generation. I believe she did her best to lift we Generation X’ers up and give us some hope that things were going to get better.
Then, she met Bobby Brown. Now, I’ve got nothing against the guy, but I have a feeling that he wasn’t all that good for Houston. Just a hunch.
Nonetheless, she married him in 1992, their daughter was born in 1993 and they stayed together for 15 years. The 90’s were certainly tumultuous times and Houston’s music seemed to become much less hopeful. There was: “I Have Nothing,” “Why Does it Hurt so Bad?” “It’s Not Right, But It’s Okay,” and “Fine.” Those are just a few samples of her songs from the years post-Brown. Of course, I’m being unfair and who knows what the reasons were for this artistic swing in her music towards themes of loss, pain and compromise?
Despair does damage
In “Run to You,” she sings, “there’s no one there, no one cares for me” and the lyrics are so incredibly tragic. The despair and disappointment in this song are so palpable that it makes me tear up.
When I think about Houston, dying alone in her hotel room at almost my exact age, I’m left with a renewed determination to not let my own life’s setbacks (I’ve had a few lately) get the best of me. Houston is continuing to inspire and motivate this Gen-X’er, even if, sadly, it is by her death. In the words of one of her most recent hit singles:
I look to you
I look to you
After all my strength is gone
In you I can be strong