Sunday, February 26, 2012

Dying a Slow Death: Whitney Houston and EDSA I

(February 17, 2012)

Whitney Houston, who was one of the music industry’s most towering and popular voices, died last February 11. As a singer, Houston drew inspiration from the powerful sway and emotion of her mother Cissy’s soul and gospel roots. The title of what is perhaps her most recognizable tune, “The Greatest Love of All,” could be applied to her anything but ordinary dedication to her music and to her fans (I can recall buying her inaugural album way back in 1985).

The misfortune of Houston’s death was not only that it came to pass, but that it did not come as a complete surprise to those who were knowledgeable about the misleading glamour and glitter of her fame-and-fortune professional life. Drugs, alcohol, the pressures of living up to the upright image of an international superstar, and the nightmare of her turbulent marriage to Bobby Brown all symbolized the slow, downward trajectory of both her career and her well-being.

Houston was embraced by thousands in the Philippines with the release of her introductory album in 1985. Her music hit the Philippine music scene like few other American singers ever had. But Houston was not the only socio-cultural phenomenon to simultaneously appeal to a considerable corpus of Filipinos around that time. About a year after Whitney Houston’s name began to gain the spotlight in the Philippines, the People Power revolt took center stage overnight and engulfed the Marcos dictatorship. It was thought then that both Whitney Houston and People Power would have permanently lasting value as marvels of artistic and moral adoration.

Whatever happened to all that? The seminal auras of both Whitney Houston and People Power faded into semi-obscurity with the passage of the years. Oh sure, we still loved to sing Whitney Houston songs at a karaoke bar or in the shower, and Filipinos never fail to celebrate People Power every February. But other people and circumstances have taken their place. Where there was once Whitney Houston, there is now Mariah Carey, Rihanna, and Lady Gaga. Where there was once People Power, there is now the sacred model of corporatized globalization, the illusion of a broadly participatory democracy, and the reinstating to power of some of the very people that the revolt was to have cashiered.

Whitney Houston’s music and People Power’s themes have never stopped speaking to us. They never stopped speaking to us about love, sadness, heartbreak, veneration, liberty, hope, youth, and the future. Houston’s melodies and People Power’s triumph over repression unleashed in us unequivocal energies and emotions that few of us thought we had in us. And how have we repaid Houston and People Power for this? By obsessing on the cheap gossip and personal demons that haunted Houston’s private life and by taking the principles of People Power for granted.

Songs like “Take Good Care of My Heart,” “Saving All My Love for You,” and “I Will Always Love You” were moving rallying points from which anyone could search for pleasure and comfort in having a romantic solidarity with their better half or cherished other. People Power meanwhile, in its best-case experience and unbroken ordination into Philippine society and history, heralded the peaceful re-establishment of democratic rule which had been denied to Filipinos for two long decades.

They say that you miss something or someone only after they are gone. We never seem to fathom this until it is too late. If by chance I succeed in persuading readers that some of us are guilty of apathetically outgrowing Whitney Houston’s soaring, heartfelt ballads and dance floor music and—for Filipinos—of not caring as they should about the message of People Power and the jewel of freedom it crafted, then we can still preserve the uprising’s contemporary significance even as we say goodbye to Whitney Houston.

I guess that’s how human nature can be: we love and worship, then we respect, then we neglect, then we chastise, then we reminisce, and then ultimately, we are sorry. To heal this past/present divide we must often acquiesce to the past as something beneficial, enriching, and generative. Cherishing Whitney Houston and her music without exception from the very first time she recorded a hit song and binding ourselves enduringly as Filipinos to People Power is in every respect, to be profoundly at home and reverently in touch with what has come before.


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