In one of the most touching homages paid to Whitney Houston since her passing away, Beyonce Knowles wrote: “So many of my life’s memories are attached to a Whitney Houston song. She is our queen and she opened doors and provided a blueprint for all of us.” And thousands of miles away, here in India, my friend Arijeet wrote on my Facebook wall: “First MJ, then Whitney. Slowly unplugging from the 1980s and our wonder years.”
She was America’s sweetheart. African Americans in particular and women musicians may well have claimed her as their own. But really, Whitney Houston belonged to us all. There was The Voice, the incredible range, the charisma, the innocent smile that travelled all the way up from her lips to the crinkled corners of her eyes … but beyond all that there was the impact she had on our lives.
Beyonce is right, I thought as I sat down to write this piece: “So many of my life’s memories are attached to a Whitney Houston song…” I was a confused, unhappy schoolgirl when ‘One Moment in Time’ was released. ‘I’ve laid the plans, now lay the chance, here in my hands,’ was a prayer and a message of hope. ‘My finest day (was) yet unknown,’ some years later when, during the tension-ridden recruitment season at my journalism institute, I remember suddenly stopping while walking down some steps with a bunch of classmates, and loudly belting out ‘I will always love you’ to soothe our taut nerves. Like Michael Jackson, Whitney was a constant companion during my student days as an urban Indian. But when the history books are written, MJ is likely to be remembered as a multi-facetted package: singer, dancer, stage performer, all-round entertainer. Whitney, on the other hand, let just her singing do the talking.
“God gave me a voice to sing with,” she once said, “and when you have that, what other gimmick is there?” But she didn’t merely sing a song. She seemed to feel it with every cell in her being, with such intensity that her searing rendition of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ could inexplicably stir feelings of patriotism towards America even among foreigners.
Church choirs in India, with their blend of hymns in English, Hindi, Malayalam, Tamil, Punjabi and other languages, have little in common with the choirs in the West. Except the faith. But having spent many years of my childhood and adolescence as a chorister, I can tell you what any devotional singer of any religion might: that there’s a point beyond which you can’t fake it.
So I read, with fascination, Whitney’s description of singing in her church in Newark, New Jersey, as a little girl. She said she was so scared that she shut her eyes and sang. “When I opened my eyes, it was like the Holy Spirit had come to the church. People were just shouting and happy and praising God,” she recalled in an interview.
She carried that passion into all her music, singing even love ballads with the fervour you’d expect in a religious composition, as if she was drawing them from the very depths of her soul. It’s perhaps that force of feeling that transported her all the way to Indian cityscapes with her very first album, Whitney Houston (1985), captivating us here with its robust romantic melody ‘Saving all my love for you,’ the more tender ‘All at once’ and that anthem for dignity, ‘Greatest love of all.’ ‘No matter what they take from me / they can’t take away my dignity’ could have been as much about a black child growing up in Harlem as about a Dalit in India, or any woman anywhere in the world asserting her independence.
Some saw the universality of her style as the popification of her black church roots. It’s what gave her pan-American — and global — appeal, but it also drew flak from some African Americans, who felt she played down her origins to appeal to the white market. Well, white folk were not the only ones responding to her accessible-yet-rooted sound. Urban Indians from the 1980s all the way up to the turn of the century were humming ‘One moment in time,’ ‘I wanna dance with somebody,’ ‘Where do broken hearts go,’ ‘I will always love you,’ ‘I’m every woman’ and ‘I have nothing.’