Whitney Houston: Long Live the Mother of Pop
What little gay boy hasn't lip-synched for his life to a Whitney Houston song? She was the mother of pop, clearing the way for Mariah, Celine, Christina, Adele, and many others. Whitney took the power ballad to cataclysmic heights — and it's a tell-tale sign of a pure songstress when it's not only difficult to sing her songs, but, as any drag queen will tell you, even lip-synching a Whitney Houston song is no easy task. With her intricate melodies, the signature phrasing and polished modulations, Whitney Elizabeth Houston was the voice.
Early last night, I was flooded with so many messages that I was sure there was a family emergency. I was stunned to hear Whitney Houston passed away at the age of 48, on the eve of the 54th Annual Grammy Awards. Overwhelmed with sadness, I saw a flash of memories that are stamped in my mind along with Whitney's iconic music. Although her downward spiral was well documented, we awaited an official comeback.
After winning six Grammy awards, selling 170 million albums, and belting out some of the greatest songs of all time, Whitney Houston’s passing is an American tragedy. The 24-hours news channels are rightfully honoring the Newark, New Jersey native with videos, performances, and interviews.
It's like looking at an old friend when you see the former fashion model in the white, sequin spaghetti strap gown for 1986's "Greatest Love of All" video. Her natural beauty was striking paired with a voice that was otherworldly. As Barbra Streisand said just a few hours ago, “She had everything, beauty, a magnificent voice."
Whitney's infectious smile and bubbling charisma in 1987's "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" video is a time capsule of a good time in the 1980s, which was a rough decade: HIV/AIDS, crack-cocaine, and President Ronald Reagan.
And the money-note in 1992's "I Will Always Love You" (written by Dolly Parton) video — when the beat drops and Whitney let's out the grandiose "I" — it's the greatest delivery of a single note ever recorded in pop music.
For the LGBT community, pop music in the 1980s wasn't just about a cute beat and big hair. This was a terrifying time, especially for gay men, who were being ravaged by HIV/AIDS. Songs like "Where Do Broken Hearts Go," "One Moment in Time," and "Love Will Save the Day" were the playlist for a horrific moment in the lives of gays. And while Whitney took a bashing from urban to mainstream press for not being "black" enough (a ridiculous insult that followed her for many years, in the end, she tore down the doors to make it OK for black female artists to crossover to pop: Rihanna, Mariah Carey, Beyoncé) — she always had a loyal following with us. The LGBT community never judged her degree of blackness, but embraced every molecule of the voice.
Whitney Houston's gay fans are as fanatical as Lady Gaga's and Beyoncé's combined. We take our pop divas seriously and I've seen gay boys argue about Whitney as passionately as they argue for same-sex marriage. When the media highlighted her downfalls, mocked her addictions, and laughed at her notorious "Crack is whack" comment, the LGBT community never turned their back on Nippy, as her friends and family called her. Maybe it's because we, too, have been misunderstood. There was something relatable about her struggles that made the "Run to You" singer more endearing.
One rumor that followed Whitney was that she was in a lesbian relationship with her longtime friend Robyn Crawford. In 2000, Whitney's first interview for LGBT press, she told Out magazine: "If I was gay, I would be proud to tell you, 'cause I ain't that kind of girl to say, 'Naw, that ain't me.' The thing that hurt me the most was that they tried to pin something on me that I was not. My mother raised me to never, ever be ashamed of what I am. But I'm not a lesbian, darling. I'm not."
Back in 1999, Whitney Houston surprised her LGBT fans at the Heritage of Pride's 13th annual Lesbian & Gay Pride Dance on the Pier in New York with an unforgettable performance. Nowadays, pop stars performing for LGBT events is no shocker. But then, it was rare for a star of her caliber, who was currently on top with the success of the dance classic "It's Not Right (But It's Okay)" and the My Love Is Your Love album, to perform for an LGBT audience. Later that year, Houston told MTV's John Norris about the performance, "It's their pride that they're celebrating. I'm just there to entertain. I'm proud of being a mother, a wife, a daughter, and a sister, and a lover and a friend. And I am sure they are all those things, too, in their own lives. We're all God's children."
Eighteen years ago, Whitney Houston won three Grammys for The Bodyguard Original Soundtrack Album. Tonight, the Grammys will pay homage to one of the most brilliant vocalists ever recorded. But outside of the voice, the awards, the legacy, Whitney wanted love that was beyond fame. Were we truly hearing her outside of the melodies? Whitney wasn’t a torch singer like Judy Garland or Billie Holiday, but she had an enduring flame, a unique soulfulness, which rested between the notes and her next breath. We will always love you.
Our condolences to Cissy Houston, Bobbi Kristina Brown and the entire Houston family.
Clay Cane is the Entertainment Editor at BET.com. You can follow him on Twitter here.