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Whitney Houston: Conflicted Soul?

My first thoughts upon reading this morning about Whitney Houston’s death at the age of just 48 were most unworthy of a Christian. I recalled a conversation with another young Christian at church when she was first famous. My friend Karen said, “Isn’t it great that Whitney Houston is a born-again Christian?” I gave her a withering reply. “Oh yes? ‘Saving All My Love For You‘ – that nice Christian song about adultery?”

I went on to think about her cover of George Benson‘s ‘The Greatest Love Of All‘. All the stuff about building up children’s self-esteem might be very well meant, but ultimately it’s pop psychobabble about self-love, closer to narcissism or idolatry.

And as for her cover of Dolly Parton‘s ‘I Will Always Love You‘ that substituted bombast for Parton’s delicacy, don’t get me started. For my money, Linda Ronstadt got the balance right:

To me, Whitney Houston took the soul out of soul music and prepared the ground for the horrors of Mariah Carey.

Like I said, not a very Christian reaction, however true, or however much I might feel I had legitimate arguments for these points of view. This was hardly taking seriously the sensitive social convention not to speak ill of the dead, even if I did so only in my own mind.
But then I found a link to a Christianity Today piece in 2009 (via Tony Watkins on Friendfeed) that spun off her then latest release, an album called ‘I Look To You’. It detailed her upbringing in gospel music. I knew that. It acknowledged her turbulent marriage to Bobby Brown and her crack cocaine addiction. I knew that, too. It set out her connections with the gospel singers BeBe and CeCe Winans. It talked about lyrics and interview comments that were by turn both opaque and transparent in terms of faith. Now it was showing me things about her of which I was ignorant.

And I wondered … you never can tell what is behind the smoke and mirrors of PR machines, but maybe she was someone who struggled when she made the stepped into the wider world from the church. Plenty of people do. They are people we are meant to help and support.

Not that I knew her. (Obviously.) As a friend of mine called Matt Bird posted on Facebook this evening,

I will always remember Whitney Houston responding to a crowd of fans declaring their love for her. “How can you love me? You don’t even know me!”

Almost all of the commentary is guesswork, and maybe not all of it is appropriate. But I hope she found that grace was always there for her struggles and torments.

I think that’s a more worthy Christian response.

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About Dave Faulkner

I'm a British Methodist minister, married with two children. I blog from a moderate evangelical-missional-charismatic perspective, with an interest in the 'missional' approach. My interests include Web 2.0, digital photography, contemporary music and watching football (Tottenham Hotspur) and cricket.

Posted on February 12, 2012, in Music and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. I can’t say that I was ever a big ‘fan’ of Whitney Houston. She was blessed with an incredible voice and was a member of a very talented musical family. But fame destroyed her, I think. A troubled marriage, drug abuse and, at the end, the loss of her great talent. It’s a deeply sad story.

    From Michael Leunig:

    Love is Born

    Love is born
    With a dark and troubled face,
    When hope is dead
    And in the most unlikely place;
    Love is born,
    Love is always born.

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  2. The US Christian scene has given us a host of great singers down the years. I’m thinking of Aretha (one of the select few who don’t need a surname. There’s only one Aretha)
    Born and raised in church, started singing solos at a very early age then crossed over to the mainstream. Sound familiar?
    I understand she had several children by different fathers and was surrounded by a host of hangers on who relied on her incredible voice to keep them in the style they were accustomed to. Sound familiar?
    The US music scene is a very different one to the UK. As well as the “mainstream” there is a parallel “Christian” music circuit with its own superstars. You know all this. Musicians cross over all the time, mostly from the Christian to the mainstream like Aretha and Whitney but occasionally from the mainstream to the gospel (Al Green).
    Faith has nothing to do with it. Two parallel music businesses, one with christian lyrics.
    It’s a shame about Whitney. We only know the myth and the hype. I was working in a record store when her first LP was released and I knew then she’d be huge. She had a great voice and looks. Perhaps she shouldn’t have gone to Hollywood. Perhaps her greatest hit became a millstone around her neck. We don’t know.
    But as many an artist has learned to their cost- if you swim with sharks the chances are high that you’ll be bitten.
    I’d prefer to remember her by her song “I wanna dance with somebody” A young girl , full of life, full of fun. RIP Whitney.

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    • ‘Faith has nothing to do with it’ – perhaps the most significant sentence you wrote, Dave.

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    • Dave (& Dave)

      The Violet Burning recently covered these themes on their triple album from 2011.

      Particularly a track called “br0thr PT1” picks up elements of the money making, soul destroying machine, that is “Christian” music scene in US:-

      i was looking for Jesus
      singing out here in the street
      we played our songs, gave our hearts
      there by the sea
      in our broken lives
      Jesus knows just what we need

      we met them in nashville
      “distribution knows just what you need…”
      “we’ll make you safe for the whole family”
      “sing Je$u$ a few more times and we’ll all make a whole lot of pretty green money..”
      “br0thr will guide you, br0thr knows just what you need…”

      lost in a shattered dream
      the years go by, a new machine
      churches entertaining me
      in place of theology
      go on… plug in your eyes
      here beneath the satellites
      i’m still looking for Jesus
      i’m singing out on this lonely street

      http://soundcloud.com/thevioletburning/1-05-br0thr-pt-1
      (link to listen to the track on Soundcloud above – and some other tracks from the awesome album there too).

      TVB have been round the block for 20 years and have seen the best and worst of the Christian Music scene in that time. I’m chuffed that their lyrics still hold a brutal honesty & integrity. Their songs really chronical the highs and lows with a “heart on your sleeve” style that makes their worship songs so much more powerful. No triumphalistic pap here…. they sing about their failures too! Always humbling.

      Back to my personal thoughts… I think a big issue is that even sincere Christian Musicians are often away from home, playing a gig somewhere on every Sat night, and too tired on a Sunday morning. They can start out with all the right motive and aims, but a toxic mix of superstardom & power, along with a lack of fellowship & discipling has taken its toll on many! We expect great teaching and inspiration from them and their music, but who is investing in them? Of course the same applies to Christian sportsmen, and the like too. Even gifted speakers & evangelists…

      “How can you love me, you don’t even know me”.

      That separation of “celebrity” from mere mortals becomes the problem.

      Mike

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  3. I was thinking myself about whether Whitney was a true Christian! I grew up on her music and she has played a big part in my musical tastes. But I genuinely wonder if she was born again or was that just tradition??? certainly, there was a wordly appeal that everyone liked that made her compromise but thats what I want to know! Also what is wrong with Mariah Carey? I also like her music, although not the worldly ones, the more soul/gospel style songs that she sings….

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    • Lee,

      Welcome here and thanks for the comment. I guess my beef with Mariah Carey is that while she is undeniably an extremely gifted singer, she over-dramatises everything. There is little room for subtlety and nuance, and those are things I appreciate. There’s a place for power and drama, but when a song is all melisma and theatrics, those things lose their impact, in my opinion.

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      • Hi Dave,

        ahhh ok I see! Alot of people do say that and I can see what you and they mean but there are other album cuts that Mariah tones down and they are equally powerful! theres a song called ‘Languishing’ that she did and it is very emotional and there are others that can just about move you to tears without ‘over-dramatising’ personally, I like that bombast but it has to have musical logic to it which she, in my opinion, does very well. she builds it up and I can follow that, unlike these American Idol singers who wail all over the place lol!

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