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):

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  1. CVH wrote:

    Well put. She took her hits and had her faults but in many ways her singing talent was unsurpassed. It was more than just her voice; it was a passion that came from deep within her that made her unique.

  2. VideoGuy wrote:

    Final public performance: “Yes, Jesus Loves Me”


  3. Wade wrote:

    If anybody sang the National Anthem better please post the video link!!!

  4. Janet B wrote:

    The news of Whitney’s death hit me like a punch in the gut. So sad…even if not totally unexpected…

    What I always loved about her voice was how effortlessly it flowed out of her…this extraordinary sound that wasn’t produced, but just a part of her being.

    I hope and pray that she has found the peace that eluded her in life.

  5. yankeegospelgirl wrote:

    #4, actually, there was a technical sense in which the sound wasn’t natural. She sang in a way that sounded wonderful, for a short period of time. Then it became unsustainable because her vocal cords couldn’t handle her technique. Drugs didn’t help either.

  6. Janet B wrote:

    YGG - For the love of…Pete… Just shut up already.

  7. Sam wrote:

    well I love whitney, her music (radio stuff) always takes me back to a very happy youth. the preachers wife soundtrack - wore it OUT. I’m very sad that she’s gone.

  8. yankeegospelgirl wrote:

    I notice you don’t seem to mind when Wade and Ode run off their mouths spewing profanities and gossip about good men and women. Yet I have but to mention a couple sad but true facts about a beloved popular singer, and it’s “Shut up already.” But how silly of me to expect consistency.

  9. Wade wrote:

    Hey Janet… You can always count on Brooke ( ygg ) to throw out the hate. I am really sorry she is like that…pray for her!!! Too soon Brooke…too soon!!

  10. Janet B wrote:

    Um…Wade & Ode weren’t talking to me. And I saw no “spewing” on this thread…but there you go, confusing the issue. Again.

    Chickie babe - where you’re concerned, I’m plenty consistent. Believe me.

  11. CVH wrote:

    Wade…I think Brooke is a little disappointed that Santorum didn’t do better in Maine. Cranky.

  12. robert wrote:

    I cannot keep from thinking there is something tremendously symbolic in the fact the last time she sang publicly it was “Jesus Loves Me”.
    How appropriate is that?

  13. Hector Luna wrote:

    My God, I can name only a few singers who blew me away in “the fashion” that she did. It was her unmistakeable prowess when she let it out of her mouth. I don’t know how many times I sat in suspense, waiting for the vocal volcano to explode with shouts of joy and awe and brilliance.

    I would sit for many dry minutes in waiting for her to drop the bomb. Even in the low notes, that deep breathy voice fulfilled that range.

  14. carl wrote:

    You hear Whitney Houston and you know in your heart that our ideas about genre don’t work very well. Neither does our readiness to make the most salient classification of a song, a style, or a performance its association with socially constructed “race”.

    She sings, and those who have ears, hear. Anything else is just commentary.

    (Doug’s afraid of being a poseur. See how unapologetically I take on that role.)

  15. Ode wrote:

    … brings to mind the tragically painful and piercingly beautiful words of Neil Young’s song The Needle and Damage Done: “But every junkie’s like a setting sun”

    And “a little part of it in everyone“….I haven’t seen a human yet that doesn’t have an addiction to some sin, so we all can relate.

    May you enjoy Heaven, the lovely one.

  16. Ode wrote:

    8, All Janet’s posts I ever read, in archives and current ones, were exceptionally reasonable, knowledgeable and consistent.

    YGG…. sigh… Sinful behaivor you joyfully engage in, amply demonstrate, and constantly unrepentantly exhibit make any other Avery’s posts/comments with bad words in them look like a Sunday School picnic. That’s why people dislike you-you act openly, blatantly ungodly.
    If you were a cursing call girl you wouldn’t be as bad as the YGG we know. Maybe you are not like that and it’s just a wrong impression of you that we got,I am open to hear your explanations, but so far….Many people told you that already. Matthew 21:31

    Btw,I dont gossip, and can substantiate everything I ever claimed.

  17. sgpromochick wrote:

    LOL @YGG! I loved Whitney and am so sad about her death….she was a machine.

  18. Wade wrote:

    Love it when people try to justify their ignorance & behavior by comparing it to what they think of others and what THEY DO… makes it ok for THEM to be so ignorant, distasteful & arrogant!!!

    See Brooke oft complains of not talking about the music & SPEWING… but then she jumps up and is the worse offender!!!

    Back to the Music… Whitney Houston was a once in a decade talent!!! Always thought it was interesting her mom singing with Elvis!!! Then Whit having same kind of issues.

    Still looking for a better performance of the National Anthem!!

  19. David Bruce Murray wrote:

    There may be better performances of the National Anthem in other styles, but I don’t think you’ll ever find one that beats her at her own game.

    Many females have sung the National Anthem at sporting events since 1991, attempting to do something akin to Houston’s version.

    They have all failed to surpass it.

    Or, if any have succeeded, I have yet to see them…just like you. Send it my way if you get one.

  20. Marty Funderburk wrote:

    Am I the only one who noticed Sandi Patty in the audience…on her feet applauding at the end of this clip? I love it. If anyone understood what it took to sing with that degree of focus and intensity it was Sandi. This “moment in time” was the pinnacle for both Whitney and Sandi.

  21. quartet-man wrote:

    #16 Ode, btw gossip and telling rumors are different. Gossiping can include true things, but are still being told around. Rumors are unsubstantiated.

  22. Wade wrote:

    For all the people who get mad at me for being blue on here some… I just want you to know there is an inappropriate joke about Whitney Houston going around and has made it on to my fb page and I have been ask to post it here by a famous poster here but I AM NOT GOING to do it!!!

    So see I do have some decorum unlike Brooke!!!

  23. Ode wrote:

    21.Not quite, rumors are not always unsubstantiated, you’ve heard the expression “truthful rumors”?

    Again, may I repeat, when I talk about people, I only tell the truth that can be substantiated. If that’s “gossip” in your understanding, then Daniel Mount is running the gossip site.

    Don’t you like the truth? Would you rather prefer lies? If maintaining of an artist’s good image demands lying or covering the truth, that’s very troubling and unchristian.

    Those who choose a career in public eye gave up their right to privacy, that’s the price of admission. Truth can never hurt. The only time it can is when minor children learn something they have no mental ability and social maturity to process. So if a singer wishes to prevent the possibility of his kids unearthing some bad truth about him, he shouldn’t enter the business.

  24. irishlad wrote:

    22 Famous?..why thank you my man :)

  25. Wade wrote:

    irishdude thanks for making my fb page truly international!!! You could post your song here too!!! ;-) :-) LoL

  26. Marty Funderburk wrote:

    So anyone hear Bill & Gloria Gaither quoted at Whitney’s funeral? I think it was Tyler Perry who said, “Because He lives, I can face tomorrow”

  27. Wade wrote:

    To bad Bill did not get her to come to a Homecoming Taping!!! That would have been FUN!!!

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