The years of Whitney Houston's greatest success were the late 1980s, and her string of #1 singles corresponds with the years I was in high school. So just by turning on the radio in those days, our world was suffused with Houston's singing. We took it for granted, I guess. Even what would have otherwise been a forgettable pop hit, like "So Emotional," still resonates because of that amazing voice.
It reminds me of an Anne Tyler novel in which Barbra Streisand comes on the radio, and is described as "showing off as usual." Like Streisand, Houston could do incredible things with her voice, and regularly did. In fact it was Barbra Streisand who I thought, as it were, struck just the right note at the news of Houston's death. She said how sad it was that Houston's gifts could not bring her the happiness they brought us.
Only listening back, now, am I aware of how rare a talent Houston had, and how seldom we hear such music anymore. In the days when she was breaking ground as a black woman artist, we heard her songs so often they started to sound everyday.
But they weren't. The Preacher's Wife was an OK movie, but Houston's soundtrack was the bestselling gospel album of all time--fitting, given her church roots. And after Houston sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the Super Bowl during the first Gulf war, who could follow her? No version of the national anthem since can realistically stand up.
For me, the defining moment of Houston's career was a video that never even showed her lovely face. She sang "One Moment In Time," the theme song of the Summer 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul. The song is by Albert Hammond and John Bettis, who also co-wrote memorable songs for another vocal talent lost too soon, Karen Carpenter.
It's a virtuoso performance, and it captures the moment of the Olympics and the pinnacle of those athletes' lives. It also reminds us of how our lives are made up of moments, and at their best, those moments are enough.
"We have in our lives only a few moments. A moment of joy and wonder with another. Some might say beauty or transcendence. Or all those things. Then you reach an age, Miss Ternan, and you realize that moment, or, if you are very lucky, a handful of those moments, was your life. That those moments are all, and that they are everything. And yet we persist in thinking that such moments will only have worth if we can make them go on forever. We should live for moments, yet we are so fraught with pursuing everything else, with the future, with the anchors that pull us down, so busy that we sometimes don't even see the moments for what they are." --Richard Flanagan, Wanting