Note: two months ago today, singer Whitney Houston died (which I wrote about here on that date). The following is a piece I wrote to remember Whitney at her best.
Remember when you first heard Whitney Houston sing? Was it “The Greatest Love of All” or “I Will Always Love You”—or maybe her Super Bowl performance of the Star-Spangled Banner? Her voice had a wide range, a soulful style and she had an ability to glide through a song. Whitney phrased the lyric, made the transition and held the note in such a way that she sang in perfect tune. Now that the coroner has ruled her drug-related death essentially accidental at the age of 48, we can say there are important lessons and that we were lucky to have her, as Kevin Costner, her co-star in The Bodyguard, said at her funeral.
You might not know that from the negative spectacle surrounding her death. Even before she died, the media preyed on her troubles with sensationalistic headlines. Afterwards, they published a photograph of her corpse in a coffin. But Whitney Houston deserves to be remembered for what made her great, not primarily for whatever may have caused her demise. Mr. Costner, whose eulogy merits special attention, named the reason why.
Whatever else, Whitney Houston was a woman of exceptional ability. She leaves behind the most beloved and popular songs of our times, whether a haunting farewell, a defiant anthem or an exuberant declaration of a desire to dance. Yet our culture, filled with sniping and conjecture that denigrate her accomplishments, is consumed by her downfall.
Sensing this, Mr. Costner urged us to “remember the sweet miracle of Whitney.” In his remarks at her funeral, he sought to establish the context of her prematurely ended life by evoking their bond, which was made of pride and productiveness and their byproduct, joy.
In a tribute filled with references to God and the Baptist church—in which both he and Whitney were raised—he declined to invoke the usual insistence that the deceased is in a better place and, instead, he spoke to the best of their secular bond. Recalling that, as a boy watching his father build a church from the ground up, he wanted to be “in on the action,” he said that one of the men noticed and told him to “have at it” and start pounding some nails. Have at it he did, eventually making his own outstanding career which earned him the ability to cast Whitney Houston in his movie The Bodyguard, which made millions of dollars.
Kevin Costner talked about the challenge of working with Whitney. He spoke about the studio being dubious of casting a black actress opposite a white actor—reminding us of the burdens of breaking with tradition—admitting that he had to think twice. “Whitney,” he said, referring to an artist who had also been rejected by black audiences and criticized for catering to whites, “would have to earn it.”
Earn it she did—and she did it in a culture in which people of ability are envied and ridiculed. Mr. Costner, telling tales that elicited smiles and laughter, explained that Whitney first had to overcome her own doubt. It turned out that she’d used so much make-up during a screen test that it melted under the hot lights. When later asked why she’d done it, she said: “I just wanted to look my best.”
This was from a beautiful and glamorous star whom Mr. Costner recalled had once confided she’d told God she was going to be great. On the eve of her biggest-selling song from The Bodyguard, which turned out to be a hit movie, he said Whitney wasn’t sure if she was good enough.
Addressing himself to young people wondering whether they are good enough, he concluded: “I think Whitney would tell you: Guard your bodies, guard the precious miracle of your own life, and then sing your hearts out, knowing that there’s a lady in heaven who is making God himself wonder how he created something so perfect.”
There, in a word, is the key to the theme of Kevin Costner’s eulogy: that to be your best, you should value yourself first and foremost and be able to conceive of yourself as perfect. Perfection, he implied, is possible. Whether she ultimately knew it or not, Whitney Houston proved it in every rising note.
Kevin Costner said what needed to be said; that Whitney’s work was well done—that it was better than others—that it was perfect. He said it when it needed to be said and he said it to those who needed to hear it most. By eulogizing Whitney Houston for her ability—essentially praising the good for being good in an age of sneering nihilism—her onscreen bodyguard conferred upon her memory an act of poetic justice and a lesson for everyone to learn.