Death rocks us. It makes us face who we are, who we are not, and who we wish we were. Even as we avoid it, death makes us yearn for transcendence: both for a belief in the hereafter and for assurance that we have accomplished something that will allow us not to be forgotten.
We were at a Mexican restaurant with friends when I happened to glance at the big screen TV and saw that Whitney Houston had passed away. Sadly, I did not need to hear the news reports to know what how she died. The story was too predictable.
When we got home, I played several YouTube videos for my children. We all gathered around the computer to watch and listen while I tried to explain her significance. Unmoved, they were primarily impressed with the fly over after her famous Super Bowl national anthem performance.
It’s hard to watch Whitney standing there in all her ‘80s glory: gorgeous voice, huge hair, headband, patriot tracksuit and all, reveling in the music and the energy of the crowd. Didn’t she almost have it all?
We mourn her beauty and her talent and wonder why it could not sustain her—why those fleeting days did not satisfy. How could someone so relatively young became so washed up? We mourn the waste, and we mourn our own youth: I remember young girls dancing around the house with pretend microphones, belting out songs, hoping to someday love well like Whitney.
Whitney’s death brought me to watching the Grammys for the first time in years. The producers handled her death respectfully without casting a pall over the entire evening. And it was fascinating to see them honor legendary but fading stars and see new ones rise.
Watching Adele in her first major performance since a potentially career-ending surgery, I could not help but think about Whitney at the Super Bowl. On Sunday, arms full of Grammys, Adele was literally rolling in the deep. In her first public performance since her potentially career-ending vocal cord surgery, she was magical. Overwhelmed, she stood before the crowd, a new young singer riding the wave of a tremendous voice with lyrics that speak to our souls. As she sang “we could’ve had it all,” her words reminded me of Whitney’s hit. I could not help but think, Don’t be another Whitney.
Despite being the subject of controversy (Adele has a famous smoking habit and just last week fashion icon Karl Lagerheld called her “fat”), she clearly knows who she is and how to be true to herself. A young, growing artist, she says, “I’ve never wanted to look like models on the cover of magazines.” This week, Vogue reports that the singer is planning to take four or five years off.
Like everyone else, I will look forward to her next album, and honestly I doubt she will stay away from her music and the limelight that long. But for her sake, I rather hope she will. She has touched the transcendence and found it empty. She says, “If I am constantly working, my relationships fail. So at least now I can have enough time to write a happy record. And be in love and be happy . . . And then I don’t know what I’ll do,” she added. “Get married. Have some kids. Plant a nice vegetable patch.”
Maybe, with her success in the wake of Whitney’s tragedy, she will follow a simpler path. I hope she does not turn from her talent, but the music business is a harsh one. The ups and downs of fame—the grueling hours and the travel rigors—push people places they never thought they would go.
I wish Adele wisdom. And I hope she finds that she can have it all.