“She Made Opera out of Oprah”

“She Made Opera out of Oprah” February 13, 2012


When I was an undergrad, I sometimes chanced to meet up in the Student Recreation Complex weight room with a kid named Raul. Raul suffered from what I now realize was Tourette’s syndrome, snorting and jerking his head in mid-sentence before going on to complete his thoughts. Spotting him on the bench or military press felt like defusing a bomb. If he suffered an attack in mid rep, my feeble hands would be the only things keeping the weight-laden bar from his larynx or skull.

Nothing of the kind happened. After we’d known each other a few months, I worked up the nerve to congratulate Raul, in so many words, for functioning so well despite his disability. He explained — I think I’m getting this right — that the concentration required by weight training temporarily neutralized the mechanism that made him twitch. Working out had thus assumed a double importance for him: not only had it made him objectively cut, it made him feel normal.

It was in the spirit of auto-empowerment, he said, that he chose his workout music. Whereas the PA system in the weight room blasted out hair-band stuff — Poison, Mötley Crüe, Cinderella, Skid Row — Raul inspired himself (through a Sony Walkman) with “One Moment in Time,” the single Whitney Houston had recorded for the 1988 summer Olympics. I won’t swear he said, “I couldn’t have done it without Whitney,” but he gave the impression of thinking so.

Well, Whitney’s gone — dead at 48. I’m feeling the same survivor’s guilt I always feel at the passing of a celebrity to whom I’d managed to form no very strong attachment. She sang Gospel-flavored R & B, the kind of music my ears have always refused to appreciate. Or maybe the blockage is in my brain. My mother has always been a passionate fan of jazz divas like Billie and Ella. Growing up, watching in impotent rage as she invaded the sanctuary of my room to scrub the snot off my walls, I noticed she was always singing “Don’t Get Around Much Any More.” My puerile mind derived a slippery-slope argument: If you start liking big-voiced black women, you’ll start liking Bette Midler and Maria Callas. And then, one day, you’ll come home in a dress.

I found affirmation in the work of scruffy white guys with behavioral problems. To this day, you’ll have a hard time convincing me that Johnny Cash, Mike Ness and Shane McGowan aren’t three Persons — distinct, yet consubstantial — forming a single rockabilly Being. By the time Whitney introduced herself to the world with “How Will I Know,” I was already ruined for her.

For that reason I’ll humbly farm out the task of eulogizing her to others. On Saturday, Salon re-ran “Didn’t She Almost Have it All?”, an essay written in 2006 by Rebecca Traister. At the time of the piece’s initial publication, Whitney was already lost beyond recall, the photos of her home drug den too squalid even for Us Magazine to run. Her image had sustained such damage that watching her say, “I’ve got to poop a poop” on reality TV struck Traister as “refreshingly real” compared to the alibis and doublespeak she’d dealt out in her infamous interview with Diane Sawyer.

To a point, Traister cleaves to rise-and-fall-of conventions by presenting Whitney’s career as a morality tale. One of her sources, University of Wisconsin’s African-American studies department chairman Craig Werner, explains her decline in terms that might resonate with today’s conservative cultue warriors. Thanks to the loss of jobs in the manufacturing sector, religious leaders’ declining influence and the war on drugs, Whitney emerged during “an extremely chaotic period in African American culture,” Werner told Traister. “Celebrity culture replaced the culture of community that had nurtured soul music and early rock ‘n’ roll,” creating “a perfect storm of how to screw up somebody’s life.”

There’s something seedy, a kind of barely concealed prurience, in the urge to reduce the complex life of a complex person to an occasion for finger wagging. Happily, Traister resists it. Unable to determine just who Whitney Houston was, and unsatisfied with speculating what she’d done to herself or what others had done to her, Traister salutes what she managed to do for the general culture. She quotes music journalist Danny Alexander to the effect that Whitney, along with Madonna, Tina Turner and Janet Jackson, “carved out a space for women to come close to dominating pop radio in the early ’90s — as not simply producers’ pawns … but serious artists demanding artistic control and respect and, in Whitney’s case in particular, with a vocal talent to rival anyone else on the radio.”

But it’s Jody Rosen who wins the Best Epitaph Award. In Slate, she writes that Whitney, “made opera out of Oprah” by codifying “late 80s therapy culture” in songs like “The Greatest Love of All.” As far as 21st-century Catholics are concerned, that — not the crack — might be the final word and the final straw. Why, I can hear the objection now: If self-esteem were estimable, then Chesterton wouldn’t have mocked it at the beginning of Orthodoxy. So there!

Okay, the call to self-healing in Whitney’s songs might not have worked for Whitney herself, but it did a thing or two for Raul. By the time we parted company, he could have cracked a walnut between his delts and his traps. If that helped him find the confidence to grab a girl and a degree, maybe start a business, I certainly won’t begrudge him it. Where were you, Matt Maher?

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