It was late afternoon the first time I inserted Whitney Houston’s debut cassette into my boom box, cued the tape to just the right spot and with trembling fingers, dialed Tommy’s number. He was the guy every girl in my fourth grade class dreamed of, the boy with the big brown eyes and tousled brown hair.
Intensely shy, I never planned on revealing my crush. Whitney would do it for me.
“Hello?” he’d answer.
Press play! Press it fast, I’d think, fingers fumbling for the chunky boom box button.
“How will I know if he’s thinking of me? I try the phone but I’m too shy, can’t speak,” she sang. Then — quick! — I’d hang up, hoping he’d never figure out who I was. Ah, what we could get away with in the days before caller ID.
Whitney’s song “How Will I Know? (If he really loves me)” gave words to the prepubescent feelings I dared not share aloud. It was 1985, the year her debut album hit the scene. Her dance tunes, filled with hokey synthetic beats, and ballads saturated with sentimentality, inspired us. I was an impressionable young girl who found escape in pop radio hits. Whitney, along with Madonna and Janet Jackson, provided the backdrop for a jillion dance and singing sessions in my bedroom. Often called “The Voice,” she was so much more than just a voice to those of us, especially girls, who grew up in the 1980s.
Fast forward 27 years, and today she’s being buried, delivered by a gold hearse. Twenty-seven years later and I’m a married woman with two young kids.
Admittedly, I hadn’t thought about Whitney Houston in at least a decade — maybe two. But like the day Michael Jackson died, the pop songstress’s death inspired a nostalgic music marathon in our household, educating my kids about Whitney as a once-upon-a-time pop music superstar.
Naturally, I marked the event last weekend by blaring “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” while whooping it up in the kitchen with my 3-year-old son and 11-month-old baby girl. While I’d like to think that my musical taste have vastly improved since my elementary and middle school days, Whitney’s greatest hits streamed through Spotify, shocking me every time I remembered, word-for-word, the lyrics to yet another Whitney tune I hadn’t heard in years.
Then there it was. Arguably one of the sappiest girl-power songs of all time: “Greatest Love of All.”
Transported back to my elementary school bedroom with its blue and white flowered wallpaper, my heart felt a rush of pure happiness and confidence that was my then 9-year-old self. Despite its melodramatic corniness, Whitney gave me and my generation of girls what I hope another musician can give my daughter one day — an anthem to feel good about herself.
It was the perfect age for “Greatest Love of All,” to blare through the headphones of my bright yellow Sony Walkman. “Learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all,” she sang with such conviction that I truly believed it. I had to learn it then, whether Tommy liked me back or not (he didn’t), and years later through countless break-ups.
Last weekend, dancing with my kids, I felt that same burst of energetic joy that comes so easily when you’re young — before awkward adolescence sets in, before tween and teenage influences somehow snatch away the knowledge of how fabulous you really are.
Which songstress will my daughter — who turns 1 tomorrow — one day play over and over through her iPod earbuds and glean life lessons from? Who will inspire her to spend hours dancing in her bedroom as a tween, letting the music fill her heart as she dances to her own unique groove? Who will she sing along with when she has those first feelings for a boy?
These days when I need a feel-good pick-me-up, you’re more likely to catch me singing in my car to something like Michael Franti’s “Shake It” (“You’re perfect just the way you are”). But Whitney’s early impact set the tone. Though ultimately troubled, it was her class and strength of spirit at that early height of her career that brought joy and hope into one little girl’s heart.
— By Alisa Blackwood