- Jeff MacGregor
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The 1980s were more than just bad hair and drum machines. But not much more, so we all paid a great deal of attention when Whitney Houston arrived in the middle of things bearing the gift and the burden of that magnificent voice.
Two minutes today on living up to your potential and then living it down.
Everything Whitney Houston sang became an anthem of a kind, but the first reference in every sports section in the world this past weekend was her 1991 Super Bowl XXV anthem. Find it here. Pre-recorded or not, it turned the form on its head, and remade "The Star-Spangled Banner" as a kind of super-commercial R&B power ballad; a single-spotlight downstage second encore to close the midnight show in the big room at Caesars. Or to open a ribbon-cutting at the Mall of America.
Marvin Gaye had long since made it a love song at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game. It had been a lament since Jose Feliciano sang it at the '68 World Series. It became a howling left-handed dissent against technocracy and war after Jimi Hendrix closed Woodstock in August 1969.
Houston's version -- all beautiful tooth enamel and cold, bright chrome -- reflected its time as well as any of them, and got its bounce into history not just from her singing, or even those blues/pop string arrangements, but from the fact that we'd launched Gulf War I the week before.
Less often mentioned, but perhaps more important, however briefly, to sports was "One Moment In Time," her 1988 Olympics/Special Olympics million-seller. It was as inspirational to that generation of young athletes as "The Greatest Love of All" and "I'm Every Woman" were to a generation of American women. Anthems, every one of them.
And that voice.
Houston birthed a specific postmodern style, a kind of stadium R&B of rococo mainstream kitsch and pitchy urban elaborations that weren't much heard outside the confines of gospel. In doing so she midwifed the filigreed careers of Mariah and Christina and Celine, and set loose two decades of love-it-or-hate-it musicianship and stagecraft.
The object example of which might be this: For those who've never done so, listen to the Dolly Parton recordings of "I Will Always Love You," which she also wrote. It's a little jewel box of a thing. The difference in the performance is that Parton always sings the song to its subject. She sings a song about loss to the someone she's losing. Whitney Houston sings the song at us, the audience.
And if we're honest, as often as not across the years, Houston was transcending her material. Most of her catalog was shlock, the worst kind of bad poetry artificially made; insipid greeting card uplift from the inspirational-industrial complex. That we paid it any heed at all is a tribute to that extraordinary voice. Like using a Stradivarius to fiddle for the Country Bear Jamboree.
As is true so often of great athletes, Whitney Houston had done almost everything for which we'll remember her by the time she was 30. The rest was decline and collapse. Drugs and money and vanity have rendered her irrelevant as an artist for 20 years. Talk all you want about the addictions -- about biological predisposition, or genetics or inevitability or moral weakness -- but the worst thing you can say about her is that she lived a cliché. Another dope-ravaged show-business diva in the Hollywood snake pit. She outlived Judy Garland by a year and a half, Amy Winehouse by 21 years.
Potential is what everyone else thinks you ought to be. Tragedy is knowing who you are.
So the gift comes with strings attached. You're only fully alive in the moments onstage. Everything else is the waiting. Or the self-medication.
But we forgive that voice anything.
Pay no attention to Sunday night's hurried wake, to the labored tributes or ersatz prayers. For years the Grammys were just a cynical marketing device. Now they're a cynical warning from the record industry that pirated MP3 files are wrong, wrong, wrong, and that only authorized album sales can help defray the cost of Gaga's costumes or Chris Brown's bail, of the onstage pyrotechnics or Gwyneth Paltrow's gift bag or LL Cool J's little bitty hats.
The music business did as much to ruin Whitney Houston as it did to create her. Still. That voice. That voice rising. That voice the lightning strike. That voice the gift so big the burden of it was too much to carry.
Maybe that's why it's important at the end of things to be more generous than we are, to understand and remember that the only person Whitney Houston could never inspire or save or move or lift with the sound of her voice alone was Whitney Houston.
Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow his Twitter.com feed @MacGregorESPN.
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