In the first round of obituaries, Whitney Houston is remembered equally as a show-stopping vocalist—arguably the best of our time—and as a drug-addled, domestic abuse victim. So, who will win for the history books? The peppy Whitney of her music videos or the messy Whitney of talk shows? This is not a question we would be able to ask of Amy Winehouse or other contemporary pop stars. What makes Whitney different from Winehouse is that her music barely reveals her hard-worn life off the stage. Amy Winehouse sang of “Rehab”; the chorus of Rihanna’s first single, after Chris Brown was indicted on domestic abuse charges, was “We found love in a hopeless place.” These are women whose life stories and discographies are interchangeable. Their stars rose at a time when privacy, as a concept, was falling. By contrast Whitney’s songs, even her dance tracks, are always wistful—see “How Do I Know When He Really Loves Me?” or “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)”—but the emotion is so scaled-back that the lyrics seem to describe the state of a middle school girl without a date to the dance. (The fact that she sang these songs wearing a big bow in her hair only re-enforced our sense of her innocence.) Even when we knew all her secrets, she still refused to own up to them in her lyrics, as in her exceptionally elusive single “It’s Not Right, But It’s Ok.” Celebrities today are generally pitied for their overexposure. But, perhaps, overexposure relaxes certain rules of comportment; maybe living out in the open is easier than maintaining dual identities. There’s no point to playing perfect when everyone read your drunken series of Tweets last night. Whitney, on the other hand, had a persona to maintain; she kept up the feminine restraint. This is why her music didn’t have much appeal in the Tell-All Century. But it also means that, some years from now, a young girl will hear one of her sweet songs on the radio and not even bother to Google the singer. And that’s exactly how Whitney would want it.


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