I heard Whitney Houston way before I saw her. I was 11 years old listening to WDAS-FM in West Philadelphia when “Saving All My Love for You” pushed its way through the mid-’80s crossover detritus dirtying black radio. At the risk of overdramatizing, I’ll admit that her preternatural voice made my young life OK for the moment.
I was a daughter of ’70s soul, where gospel-drenched vocals and lush, funky arrangements were the gold standard. Between my father, a songwriter, my mother, a superfan, and my sister, an amateur DJ, black music served as a religion of sorts in our house. When my sister and I would study the lyrics of “Songs in the Key of Life,” when my father would school us on the genius of Donny Hathaway, when my mother would fill the family room with Walter Hawkins, Earth Wind and Fire and Nina Simone, it meant more than just enjoyment. This music was our culture, our glue.
So imagine my confusion in the mid-80s when The Pointer Sisters were singing over tinny drums on “Neutron Dance,” Debarge was having its greatest success with the faux reggae of “Rhythm of the Night,” and Ray Parker, Jr. was even in the conversation. I remember feeling betrayed by this shifting reality of black music. Sure, I dug the rock-and-soul pyrotechnics of Prince and the Revolution, squealed over the Jacksons-reminiscent warmth of New Edition, and bopped my braided-and-beaded head to UTFO, but something was missing.
Whitney, a young, Newark-bred, churched daughter, niece and goddaughter of black music royalty, filled that void for me.
For the most part, Whitney wasn’t wrapping her three-octave range around traditional soul melodies. She didn’t need to. Her voice was a singular instrument, an anchor for some of the lightest, corniest pop this side of Wham. Cissy’s daughter made songs like “I Want to Dance With Somebody” passable in the halls of the prep school I was attending and the ‘hood I called home. The flawless soprano knew how to put a little stank on a ballad like “You Give Good Love” without growling or endless runs. And the aforementioned “Saving All My Love for You” captured the yearning I felt even at that age, for an intimacy that at the time seemed unattainable for a nappy headed, proper-talking brown girl with an African name.
People have made much of Whitney Houston’s facial symmetry, glamour, thinness and poise before the drugs and the marriage, but that was never the point for me. When I finally saw her on that peach album cover wearing a short natural and a regal one-shouldered number, she only confirmed what I had intuited. Here was a young woman who could combine soul and pop to create sophisticated, unforgettable music. Whitney mastered the quiet moments of a song and she sang at full volume with a serene smile. She carried the artistry of those who came before her into a decade full of cheese-synth mess. That, for me, is the meaning of Whitney Houston. I want to thank her for sharing her soul with the world.