As is the case with many fans of Whitney Houston, my mind has been consumed with thoughts of the void her passing has left on us and in the music world as a whole. Her music has been playing on an almost nonstop rotation inside my head. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m more of a fan than I ever realized or if her music is now more valuable to me because there will never be more of it.
Whatever the case may be, I feel more profoundly affected by her passing than that of any other performer, entertainer and vocalist I have never had the pleasure of meeting in person. Perhaps, like Kevin Costner, it’s because of our common church background.
Perhaps it’s because her faith was always on display and I never recognized it. Perhaps it’s because whatever she was struggling with (which I won’t call by name because it could be any number of things) was put so fully on display and so mercilessly parodied that I never understood it for what it truly was.
While much of her struggle was by her own doing, a struggle is a struggle regardless as to whether or not we can understand it or relate to it. It should be seen as much. Talk show host Wendy Williams, having dealt with similar addictions, may have understood this better than most in spite of what she has said publicly in the past. This commonality that she shares with Whitney makes her own Whitney remembrance on last Monday’s show the most poignant, raw and chillingly honest of any other.
At her funeral on Saturday, much was said of her talent, accomplishments and beauty, but far more was made of her unapologetic faith in God. Though several allusions were made to her public and private struggles, they were all tied back to that faith.
Tyler Perry illustrated this best when he reflected on a meeting he had with her in Atlanta a few years back during which he found her to be surprisingly candid and open about her life. He recounted the cycle of their hour-and-a-half conversation when a heaviness would fall on Whitney that she would counter with “but the Lord” and then “but my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and his amazing grace” when that heaviness circled back again.
Say what you will about him or the moment, but I took something from it. I took something from each reference to her faith in God. I don’t know when these struggles began versus when they manifested themselves in her public behavior and in the press, but I now take something new from her renditions of “I Love the Lord” and “I Can Go to the Rock” on the The Preacher’s Wife soundtrack.
Could she have been at the beginnings of those struggles when she sang those songs? Could she have somehow seen or felt that there would be such struggles in her future? In the midst of that storm, did she see these struggles as her cross to bear? Either way, the lyrics I love the Lord, He heard my cry and pitied every groan. Long as I live and troubles rise, I’ll hasten to his throne from the former song and the questions asked in the first two verses of the latter song now take on a haunting new meaning for me.
In retrospect, it feels as if she was trying to tell us that despite her unimaginable success, despite the smiling and despite the brave front, she was struggling. For all that we were seeing, hearing and/or thinking, what she wanted from us was compassion, understanding and love. If we loved her for her music, couldn’t we also love her through the struggles?
For the most part, it didn’t seem so. We couldn’t. We were disappointed. We shook our heads at what she was doing to herself. We were angry that such a potent foe had chosen to do battle with our Whitney. And if it could happen to someone as untouchable as her, it could happen to us or to someone in our lives for whom we have the same love -- but actually know in person.
During my churchgoing days, our pastor handed out prayer cards. On that card, we were to write the names of people we wanted to remember to pray for. We were to pray for them a daily basis. Whitney Houston was on my list. For a time, I prayed for her daily. I wanted her to come out of this. I wanted her to break free from whatever was burdening her. I wanted her to go back into the studio and make more music with the same power that she had in her heyday.
Though I eventually stopped praying, I never stopped hoping and I was encouraged by the release of I Look to You in 2009. It signaled to me that the worst was over. She had gotten the upper hand and was going to ultimately be victorious. It knew it wasn’t going to be the same but at least she was back and claiming the victory.
Then I started hearing that chatter again. If it was true, I just didn’t see how she could beat it this time. So I chose to ignore the chatter. If it was true, I didn’t want to be disappointed -- again. If it was true, I didn’t want to be saddened that it was gripping her -- again. If it was all true. We live in a world where gossip and conjecture generally passes as news so that everyone can be the first to break it, so it’s hard to know what is actually the truth.
Here’s the real truth – addiction of any kind is often much stronger than we are. But because of who she was and how she sometimes set herself up for parody, it was much easier to mock her than to see the struggle behind the spectacle – which is strange considering how many people, known and unknown, we’ve lost to such addictions.
But I learned something from what was said about Whitney on Saturday. In effect, I learned something from Whitney’s life itself – not that addiction can strangle anyone no matter what means they have or how famous they are, but that one who struggles can still be a person of faith.
It’s so simple that I was amazed someone such as me, with the sense that God gave a goose, hadn’t come to this realization earlier. Maybe it was in the deep recesses of my mind and was only brought to the forefront as a result of watching Whitney’s funeral on cnn.com Saturday morning (west coast time). Or maybe it was too simple a thought to entertain.
I recalled having an issue in my mind with her being in The Preacher’s Wife because of her status as a pop singer. It was 1996. I was a deep and holy sort who didn’t understand why someone who actually lived the life they professed instead of just professing to live such a life wasn’t cast instead. It should be noted that none of those reservations prevented me from seeing the movie with my best friend Jasper at the Headquarters’ Plaza in Morristown, New Jersey or purchasing the soundtrack after watching it.
But it was an ignorant judgment call on my part. I didn’t know her life behind the scenes (and I don’t now). It wasn’t my business to know and it isn’t my business to know now. The only thing that I needed to concern myself with, then and now, is what she is trying to convey in her music. Anything that rang false would be revealed in due time.
But there really wasn’t anything false about her. Sure, she may have lied or evaded certain things, but was that really her or just defensive forces that were actually in the driver’s seat? I’m not giving her a pass, but it is something to consider. Was that 2002 interview with Diane Sawyer a cry for help? Was her 2003 radio interview with a pre-talk show Wendy Williams on WBLS in New York another one? And was her participation in Being Bobby Brown in 2005 the ultimate cry for help?
Whitney was the musical guest on Saturday Night Live shortly after I saw The Preacher’s Wife. She sang “I Believe in You and Me” and “I Can Go to the Rock”. At the time, with my judgments in mind, I was a bit put off by how churchy she had gotten during the latter performance with the Georgia Mass Choir -- who also appeared on the soundtrack. I didn’t trust its authenticity. It felt showy.
It was another ignorant judgment call on my part that I had no right to make. Even if it was for show, that would be between her and her God. I need not be in that.
After I outgrew my holy deepitude, I began to understand that those who minister best often do so from a place of personal life experience – whether from the mountaintop or from the valley. I’m not talking about being the pastor or the priest, I’m talking even as a layperson. We’re all ministers in own way. And how can those who speak from the mountaintop, the valley or even as they’re climbing up from one to the other do so without having any personal experiences to draw upon?
It wasn’t until sometime last week that I saw a clip of her performance of “I Can Go to the Rock” again when popcrush.com posted a video of it on their website in conjunction with her performance of “I Believe in You and Me” and her appearance in a Mary Katherine Gallagher sketch.
Fifteen years of alleged maturation on my part makes a difference. This time, I saw a Whitney that was happily in her element – singing gospel music accompanied by a choir. Better yet, she was doing it on a mainstream television program.
While she imbues passion and heart into all of her performances, what she brought to “I Can Go to the Rock” came from a deeper, more fundamental place. Though on a secular stage, she was at home. As was the case with the airing of her funeral and with her role in The Preacher’s Wife, the audience -- a very diversified one -- was invited to come on home with her.
Assuming that any of the above questions about the status of her struggle in those days were actually the case, she was letting us know that she couldn’t get through the tough times by her own power. Neither can we. And she didn’t try to. Neither should we. Because there is a rock. Her rock may have been different that your rock, but a rock is still a rock nonetheless.
It wasn’t as if The Preacher’s Wife was suddenly about her wanting to do what is essentially a gospel album. Her body of work is riddled with references to her faith. “Jesus Loves Me” was featured on The Bodyguard soundtrack and became the last song she is known to have sung prior to her death. I believe she believed it.
All the talk about her faith brings new meaning to “The Greatest Love of All”, “I Wanna Dance with Somebody”, “Run to You”, “Saving All My Love for You”, “I Have Nothing”, “So Emotional” and “I Love to You”.
Whitney was far from an enigma. We may not have understood her at all times but that’s not because it wasn’t put out there for us. She may not have been in our faces about it all but she was quite transparent about it all. We just spent more time judging, mocking and parodying it than seeing it all for what it really was. Worse yet, some people continue to make jokes about it all.
To those who take a sanctimonious stance against her for those struggles, I suggest they try to deal with their own while under the glares and stares of the public eye. We’ll see how well it goes for them.
TD Jakes said during his remarks at the funeral that death did not win. The length of her life may not have been as long as we would have expected but it wasn’t exactly cut short. We have a quarter century great moments, memories and chart-topping songs from a once-in-a-lifetime voice. That sounds pretty victorious to me.
On an unrelated note, CNN Belief Blog contributor Stephen Prothero writes about how Whitney’s funeral drew the world into the black church – even if for a few hours on a Saturday. It’s a further testament to the crossover appeal of Houston, her church-trained voice and her gospel-flavored music.