Whitney Houston began her singing career in a New Jersey church when she was 11. Doubtless few in attendance that day had any idea she would go on to sell over 170 million albums worldwide and leave a mark as one of the most celebrated vocalists—of any gender—of the 20th Century. Known for hits like “Saving All My Love For You,” “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me),” “I Will Always Love You” (a Dolly Parton cover), “I’m Every Woman” (a Chaka Khan cover), and countless others, Houston was the recipient of six Grammys, two Emmys, 22 American Music Awards, and chart-topping success like no other female solo vocalist has ever known. She had a once-in-a-lifetime voice, and if the outpouring of emotion in the wake of her passing on Feb. 11 is any indicator, the love she vocalized and put into her work was well reciprocated by the world her powerful singing touched.
It is likewise true that although Houston attained remarkable success by any measure—fiscal, creative, performance or popular—the shadow of substance abuse will always loom large in any discussion of her legacy. Her final album, 2009’s I Look To You was the fastest-selling debut of her career, and yet, the tour to follow floundered. Already two years divorced, she’d forever be associated with her ex-husband, Bobby Brown, and forever associated with their joint turbulent past, the perceived fall from grace in the public eye. Arrest incidents. Rumors. Entertainment news. If I Look To You showed anything, it was that the world still wanted to believe in Whitney Houston, still wanted to believe she could conquer her past and join the ranks of the greatest soul singers of all time.
Houston will never have her “Aretha Franklin singing at Barrack Obama’s inauguration” moment, and in a way, both she and the world are cheated of it. She’ll never be the grand dame of either pop, gospel or R&B that she should have been. I Look To You is fitting as a step in what was to be an ongoing return to prominence, but it was hardly an epitaph for a woman who influenced a generation of singers. Houston would hardly be alone in making her greatest impacts with her earliest work—across genres, it’s an almost universal notion—but as the league of vocalists in her wake came to prominence over the last decade, Houston wasn’t there to guide them, and now she won’t be there to stand and enjoy her enduring significance as their maturity influences the next round in turn.
But aside from being one of the most important singers of her day, and aside from being an artist whose work touched millions across the world and across time, Whitney Houston was a troubled person, and in the end, her untimely death reminds that even those who seem to have everything can feel outmatched or overtaken by forces other than themselves. As the Grammys pay tribute and other artists, producers, record companies, film producers, etc., pay tribute, they’re doing so in part not just for the passing of Whitney Houston, but for the passing of Whitney Houston’s potential, for what could have been both in the future and already in a different past had her life taken another course. Somehow, the mourning seems all the more potent for that.
Rest in peace Whitney Elizabeth Houston. Too soon.