When news broke on Saturday evening about the death of Whitney Houston, it was one of those moments that many of us will remember for years on end, knowing exactly where we were, who we were with, and random details of little importance. Just as I remember exactly where I was standing when I got a call about the death of Princess Diana, or what I had made for breakfast when I turned on the news and saw the first World Trade Center tower being hit, this news too will forever be imprinted in my mind. (I was at a nail salon of all places when the news broke and will probably think of Whitney now when I choose “Vogue” as my nail color.)
I started to think about why this particular celebrity death was so profound to me. Why was I thinking about it so much? Not even Michael Jackson’s death had fazed me much. And then as I listed to Whitney songs for the next 24 hours and beyond, singing every word to every song as flashbacks from significant events of years past entered my mind, it struck me. Whitney is on the soundtrack of my life. Any one of us who grew up in the ’80s particularly, experienced our childhoods and formative teen years with her music as the background.
As I listened to the songs I so loved, there were a few standouts. Like, for example, the fact that the first song I ever learned to play on the piano by heart was “The Greatest Love of All.” It was also the song I chose to play for my first piano recital ever.
And then there was “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” the song I sang and danced to in my third grade talent show that won me third place.
And there were songs like “So Emotional” and “How Will I Know,” that I remember dancing to around the living room with a full stage crafted out of sofa cushions and hair brushes for microphones, as my childhood best friend and I giggled over our first boy crushes ever. We even made gigantic hair bows out of ribbons so we could look like Whitney with her big silver bow in the video.
Back to the piano, “All at Once” was another of the first songs I learned to play by heart. And I never forgot it. I loved the melody and I loved playing it. It also reminds me of long summer days in the pool, the smell of Bull Frog sunblock, and how long school vacation seemed then. It was simple.
Then there’s “One Moment in Time,” that brings to mind a montage of images. The first Olympics I remember was 1984 and that’s only because they were in Los Angeles and we went to some of the events. I can’t tell you what was the theme song of the most recent Olympics, but I can tell you that in 1988 in Seoul, it was this one, the inspirational ballad that still gives me goose bumps.
“Where Do Broken Hearts Go” could quite possibly be the first song I ever sang in the shower or in front of the bathroom mirror. I certainly didn’t have a broken heart in 1988 when the song came out, but it brings back vivid emotions of feeling lonely for some reason. I remember hearing the song on the radio in a friend’s mom’s car as she was driving on a winding road at night wearing perfume I didn’t like and she was taking me home. That’s all I remember. If I had to guess, it was probably another slumber party that I left early. I’ve never been big on sleeping at other peoples’ houses.
I can’t tell you the teams who played in the first Superbowl I remember, but I can tell you that Whitney sang the National Anthem. I remember that the Gulf War had begun and I have memories of seeing speckled green blobs on a black background on the TV in my mom’s room as she got ready for work. Those green blobs were bombs – my how our technology has changed! Hearing Whitney sing the anthem in that Superbowl may be the first time I ever felt truly patriotic. We had learned the Star Spangled Banner in school, but somehow this was different. I knew what war was at that point, could see it on the television, and this was our country’s song. It will probably go down in history as one of the most powerful and beautiful live renditions of the anthem at any Superbowl or sporting event. Ever.
Fast forward a couple of years, and we’re now in high school. Hands down, “I Will Always Love You” and the entire soundtrack from “The Bodyguard” brings back visceral emotions. It was a crazy time, crazy emotions. Forget the years of not empathizing with the lyrics of “Where do Broken Hearts Go.” Now I knew what crushes and heartache felt like and this movie and its songs devastated and uplifted me all at once.
In fact, I remember the day I went to the theatre to see it. I remember who I was with, I remember the gossip that was being spread that day, and I remember the awkward run-in we had in the theatre with people my friends and I didn’t want to see. It was high school. Everything was a big deal. And who showed up with whom to see a movie like “The Bodyguard” was big news. The soundtrack was constantly on repeat – I think “I will always love you” was even on my answering machine at one point (remember when we used to have songs in the background of our outgoing message?) The songs literally transport me back to those years. It’s just bizarre.
“I Have Nothing” is a song that on one particular day in high school, I came home and played it very loud with the door to my room shut, candles lit, crying my eyes out as I belted it out, and played it over and over and over again all night. My mom was worried. She probably doesn’t even remember this day, but I can recall her knocking on the door at one point and saying, “Honey, are you going to listen to that this loud for much longer? Maybe it’s time to change the song and turn it down.” I had gotten into trouble for something I did — I wasn’t “grounded” so to speak, but I wasn’t allowed to go out. And I was mad and sad. There was a cruel boy or two and a mean girl or two involved and again, it was high school. Everything was a big deal. Whitney sang to my heart and my soul and the pain and angst was exactly where I was and wanted to be in that moment.
Then “Waiting to Exhale” came out. And the puppy love pain, confusion, excitement, butterflies, jealousy, and all other emotions were raw and new. Sometimes it wasn’t angst. There were times in high school that were wonderfully exhilarating and fun and painful in a beautiful way because so many important life lessons were being learned. Some people have pleasant, easy high school experiences. Mine wasn’t. It was torture. Girls were evil and boys were, well, boys. And the lyrics of “Why Does it Hurt So Bad” seemed perfect. I listened to it all the time.
And at other times, “Exhale” was more fitting. Particularly when I was in a “forget about all y’all” kind of mood and found strength and courage in the message of the song to just breathe and let it go. I would listen to these two movie soundtracks at home, in the car, in my (gasp!) discman, and the entire albums will forever remind me of a time that now I look back on with great respect. They were hard lessons to learn at a young age about trust, friendship, loyalty, betrayal, jealousy, fear, and envy, but also that at the end of the day, we all just do the best we can. Even the mean girls and jackass boys.
Then years later, Whitney teamed up with Mariah Carey in “When You Believe.” Those late ’90s years were probably more Celine Dion in the soundtrack of my life. But — there was a person in my life at the time who was chasing a dream. We would hear “When You Believe” from time to time when it came on the radio, and one day that was particularly disheartening, the song came on as we were going about five miles per hour behind a snowplow (after getting over a foot of snow in a few hours). For some odd reason, the seriousness of the conversation, combined with Whitney and Mariah belting out this love song, and the irony of our being literally stuck behind a snow plow, slipping and sliding all over the road, made for a humorous moment that had us both laughing like hyenas by the end of the song. I’ll never forget that moment.
When “My Love is Your Love” came out, it was on a mix CD that I brought with me to Italy during my junior year of college studying abroad. The song brings back memories of being on trains and traveling through Europe with nothing but a backpack and an adventurous spirit. But most importantly, it reminds me of the lifelong friends I made during my time there, and all the hope and promise of those years. It was simply one of the best times of my life.
There are so many Whitney Houston classics that flood my heart and mind with memories. It’s a gift that one woman’s musical talent and voice could touch so many lives. And while her later years were overshadowed by addiction, erratic behavior, and choices that damaged her squeaky clean image, there was hope that she’d bounce back. Now, she’s seemingly another incredible talent to lose the battle with drugs and addiction. Such a waste. There’s no question that Whitney was one of the greatest voices of all time and will be missed. One place she won’t be missing? The soundtrack of my life.