By Daniel Borgen, PQ Monthly
I’ve never really understood intense public outcry over celebrities’ deaths. I realize a measure of fascination is in order, certainly, but the hysterics and wailing and hasty construction of impromptu shrines and heaping piles of flowers and other mementos? I couldn’t fathom it.
Then, last Saturday, while on a shopping safari at JCP in support of Ellen, a barrage of text messages started coming in. Whitney Houston died. And now, much to my chagrin, I get it.
For me, Whitney was more than a big gay icon. She embodied — simultaneously — high glamour, the invention of the diva, sheer sonic perfection, and ease. For all her superstardom, her smile and laugh made her seem approachable, real, and completely human.
Growing up very much in the closet and very much in a strict, conservative religious setting, Whitney’s music, like no other artist’s, became the soundtrack to my life. In that incredible voice I found comfort. And it didn’t hurt that she was so influenced by gospel — as a church kid, her crossover assuaged a little of my guilt.
Yes, that voice. But perhaps even more than her voice, her unabashedly emotive lyrics. Besides unearthing someone’s diary and exploring their innermost secrets, I can’t think of an adequate way to exude such raw emotion.
Unapologetically all-love, all-the-time, she sang words that’d make you cringe if they were spoken. “I have nothing if I don’t have you.” And she always asked the most important questions. “Where do broken hearts go?” “How will I know if he really loves me?” “Didn’t we almost have it all?” Each of her songs made my early gay angst infinitely more bearable. If that glamorous, beautiful goddess felt like nothing without love, then I didn’t feel so bad for feeling the same.
Yes, in music there’s rarely consensus, but we can all concede the soundtracks to our lives — however different they might be — leave permanent marks. Singers publicly, proudly declare what our hearts are thinking; and we feel a little less crazy. So, for me, Whitney was my fantasy, my comfort, my escape.
As this past Whitney weekend wore on, I eventually pried myself off the couch and away from hours of YouTube videos. I sauntered to CCs that Sunday night, where the Superstar Divas hastily assembled a pretty stellar Whitney tribute. I sat with friends, belting out every lyric to every song. It was a fitting way to allay some sorrow while adding a few more tracks to my life’s soundtrack.