Monday, February 13, 2012

A Cautionary Tale

I heard the news Saturday night that Whitney Houston had been found dead earlier on Saturday in a hotel room in Beverly Hills, California. The news report - I think it was on CBS - stated that she was only forty-eight years young.

I am not someone who was ever especially familiar with Ms. Houston's music. She rose to prominence in the latter half of the 1980's - while I was in college - and she was an inescapable presence on the radio and on television (once upon a time kids the "M" in MTV stood for "Music"). Other than the songs that received radio airplay and the videos that accompanied them, I knew nothing of her music. I knew just enough of her backstory to know that she was a Jersey girl from a family of musical renown. And I knew enough to know that when she opened her mouth, the sound that she produced was simply gorgeous.

The image that shall remain forever frozen in my mind's eye regarding her is that of her on the field at Tampa Stadium in January 1991, performing "The Star-Spangled Banner" before the Giants and the Buffalo Bills played Super Bowl XXV. The game followed by days the commencement of hostilities in what was then referred to as "Operation Desert Storm" but now is noted historically as the "First Gulf War". It was a tense time in these United States. And there she stood, resplendent in an outfit arguably chosen more for its color scheme than for its style, giving a performance for the ages. Whether she sang it live or lip synched along to a virtuoso rendition she had performed a day or two earlier matters little. At that moment, on that stage and in that setting, she caused Americans around the country to forget political affiliation, to set aside rooting interest in the game itself and to think and feel in one voice. One color. One people. One purpose.

By all accounts - including her own words in interviews given sporadically over the last decade of her life - the damage inflicted upon her health, her well-being and that beautiful voice was principally self-inflicted. Why we the humans do to ourselves the things that we do to ourselves shall remain the single greatest mystery of the species - right up to the point in time when we blow each other to Kingdom Come....or one of the other clever ways we shall satify our appetite for self-destruction. She was not the first to do so. She shall not be the last.

In yesterday's New York Times Jon Caramanica wrote a piece on Ms. Houston that is absolutely worth reading, which piece began with this beautiful, prescient observation, "Whitney Houston died a cautionary tale, but all cautionary tales were heroes once."



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