Hastening to his throne
What to say about Whitney Houston, may she rest in peace?
This is the kind of post bloggers often come to regret: the quickly drafted response to news that tries to say something more or else than first-draft reactions allow or accomplish for all but the most gifted writers, among whose ranks I decidedly do not number. In the case of Whitney Houston’s death, it seems silly to write (and read) some of what I find myself saying below, and yet it approaches - if also without ever fully connecting with - a line of authentic feeling for me generated by the news of her death. There’s an asymptote joke in there somewhere, I suspect, but I’m even worse at math than first drafts. So there you go.
Anyway: Whitney Houston. The rock purists dismissed her stuff as poppy schlock and the R&B and black gospel crowd saw a lot of her best work as a betrayal of tradition. For a hillbilly Baptist kid from the Ozarks, I had no idea about all this. I just loved her music. I assume part of my fascination was at least partly to do with her music’s debt to a certain sensibility that underlies gospel music across the the racial continuum. At least it seems plausible to me that that underlying force in her music, when revoiced in the idiom of power pop, managed to make it both recognizable and strangely new to gospelites of all colors and stripes. But perhaps that’s getting pretty close to setting off a poseur alert.
Whatever accounted for her appeal to the world in general or me personally, I am one of those people for whom Whitney Houston’s music scores a good deal of what I recall of being a teenager in the late 80s and early 90s. If I wanted to be confessional or to drift back into poseur territory, or both (though I wish neither), I would, for instance, try to tell you more about why and how “Didn’t We Almost Have it All” is one of my favorite songs. But I’ll spare us all (ok, one little confession: I still get a little verklempt at the beginning of each verse thinking how exactly it matched the twinned feeling of adolescent yearning and despair that I - and probably countless other kids like me - experienced to be the stock in trade of being a teenager). Easier, and briefer, and less messy to say her passing instigates that strange and self-conscious form of dissociative grief generated by celebrity death.
In any case, of course, the southern gospel world knows her best for The Preacher’s Wife and Houston’s electric cover of Dottie Rambo’s “I Go to the Rock.” But I actually prefer another song from that movie, “I Love the Lord,” which is in the first half of the clip below (except for Lionel Richie playing the keyboards, the last half is a fairly forgettable rehash of a Christmas standard).
Better students of pop and black gospel than I will, no doubt, write explanations for and dissections of Houston’s talent and professional trajectory in the context of her most famous songs. But for my part, if you want to hear an encapsulation - and maybe even feel a little - of what made her so special upon her first appearing and on into her her prime, you could do worse than to listen to what she does here to the various occurrences of the word “to” in the phrase “hasten to his throne,” how she works with and on it across the arc of the song, toys and tinkers with it, and then finally takes full expressive possession of it, until it stops being a part of speech and becomes the sound of inspiration fused to insight and set free in song.
It doesn’t last very long, or at least not long enough (like most of Houston’s best music, at least to her fans), and - again, like Houston’s career - you have to put up with a lot of impurities and defilements in order to encounter what matters most (try, dear reader, try hard to ignore the trivializing insipidity of Denzel Washington’s character in this clip … I suggest closing your eyes so you can hear what’s going on musically and not be distracted by the surface nonsense of the impoverished plot). But then again, who has ever hastened to the throne undefiled, and who would bother to provide this kind of captivating musical explanation of how to get there if the path were pure and primrose?
And a post script (h/t, KC):