Of course I want to talk about Whitney Houston. Doesn’t everyone who ever saw her sing the national anthem like-a-celebrity-is-supposed-to-sing-it want to talk about her today? [propaganda here]
I don’t know what song is going through your mind, but I can’t get the image of that huge, soulful mouth erupting with Dolly Parton’s “but I-I-I will always love you.” It is the perfect pop song sung by the perfect pop voice. Unfortunately, today, fans are also hearing it as a horribly ironic farewell: “So, good-bye. Please don’t cry. We both know I’m not what you need.”
We were surprised yesterday morning to see Ms. Houston on CBS Sunday Morning. For one thing, how could they possibly have a tribute ready for her so soon after her death? Do they have them prepped in advance? For another, why would the newsmagazine show by-and-for-old-people care about Whitney Houston?
I think the hints about why we care are in the very thin lyrics of her great song.
People care because we love to consume pretty, young people; they are the candy Valentine hearts on the media smorgasbord. “If I should stay, I would only be in your way.” But “I will always love you.” That line represents the perfect relationship for many of us. The person always wants us, always tries to make a comeback, but is ultimately easy to dispose of.
We care about Whitney because we love sentiment without commitment. She moved us for a minute when she sold her bright smile and loving attitude to us. We felt for her addiction and abuse. Whenever she got back into the news (the constant “news” about the celebrities we “love”) it was a little like her song: “I’ll think of you ev’ry step of the way. And I will always love you.” People are rushing to replay her saying that to them today. It is a pleasure. Caring about someone on the screen, and being “cared for” by them, is a safe, vicarious love that poses no threat.
We care about Whitney because we relate to her capacity for denial. She sings the song that helps us figure out how to execute soothing mindlessness: “when the night falls and the loneliness calls, I wanna dance with somebody.” If Whitney, with all her problems with Bobby Brown and all can shake it off, we can get back on the dance floor ourselves. She makes us think it is all going to be OK by wishing us Disney-like goodness, like the song does: “I hope life treats you kind. And I hope you have all you’ve dreamed of…And I will always love you.” We are determind to believe that.
Now we can consume her death. The threat of commitment is really gone. We can move on to the next starlet.
In other words, using Whitney Houston can be dangerous to one’s soul. Many of us will be disappointed with our Valentines tomorrow night because they are not a tasty-enough consumable (or disappointed in ourselves for the same reason). Many of us are in relationships right now that are all sentiment and no commitment, and the sentiment is a shallow excuse to stick with each other, especially when our darker sides inevitably come out. Many of us think defending ourselves by denying reality is normal – we sing of hopes and dreams and happiness while having almost no experience of their fulfillment, certainly not with another person — a song about them is about as close as we get. It looks like it is about as close as Whitney got, too.
Our souls might be in danger. We love God with pop song habits, too. When it comes to Jesus, we consume and are disappointed. We are sentimental and too superficial to make a life-long relationship. We use happy talk to replace the real work of becoming fully human and call it praise. We are way too well-trained by the media we pump into our brains, led by pop stars.
Whitney Houston offered her spectacular talent and I received it gratefully. It made her more notable to me than all the other people who died the day she died. There was goodness in her talent. But with the love-as-confection day that is coming up tomorrow, I also have to note that she was a false teacher of the first magnitude, in the content of her song and life. I can’t judge her heart and I hope to get to know her in the age to come. But for today, her life and work is a cautionary tale. When I say “I will always love you,” it is because I am moved and filled by God’s eternal love. It must not mean “I will consume you,” or “I will remember you fondly after I have refused to endure conflict,” or “I will use the thought of you as a means to not be so lonely.” If it is real, it will mean I am developing a heart true enough and expansive enough to give, and stay and include.