If you asked me what I was doing at this moment exactly 30 years ago, chances are I would be in my parents’ family room, MTV blaring with me trying to sing – emphasis on trying – Whitney Houston’s #1 hit “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)” which was on heavier than heavy rotation that summer. It wasn’t just her voice though that captivated me though. It was the hair, it was the makeup, both of which I tried to copy. After all, I was on the precipice of 13.
So it wasn’t surprising that five years ago that news of Whitney Houston’s death on the eve of the Grammy awards drove me to tears. The first trimester pregnancy hormones didn’t help. Sadly the all too familiar refrain of dying too young after taking too many drugs was being sung again. It’s every parent’s worst nightmare.
But I struggled with understanding how this could happen to arguably the greatest female talent of the second half of the 20th century, the woman whose voice carried her across racial barriers, the one who so strongly sang “The Greatest Love of All”, the anthem of empowerment and self confidence.
The new Showtime documentary “Can I Be Me” helps with understanding what happened as much as anyone can. Whitney’s story is told chronologically but never-before-aired footage from her last world tour in 1999 are interwoven throughout and it’s clear during the tour you can see her at the tipping point. If you were just as much of a Whitney fan as I was, prepare to have your heart broken all over again.
As I watched it became increasingly clear that like many things in life, parenting explains quite a bit of what happened.
Early on in the approximately 100 minute documentary, one theme which quickly emerges is how Whitney’s mother Cissy Houston, an incredible talent in her own right, really drove Whitney at a young age. I think someone says at one point that Whitney had the career Cissy always wanted.
We see this kind of pressure, especially with children who are gifted and talented and not just academically but athletically or in the arts like Whitney. Often kids who are gifted in some way thrive at a more intense work level compared to their peers. There is an analogy out there that having a gifted 5 year old working at grade level would be like putting Michael Phelps in a kiddie pool.
Gifted children aren’t the only ones thrown into the pressure cooker with the lid closed. I do think as parents we all push our children to do better than we did. I cite the process to get children into certain colleges as evidence of the pervasiveness of this kind of pressure. We force our kids into extra enrichment classes, myriad activities and intense test prep all with the intent of procuring one or preferably several acceptance letters.
But it takes a huge toll because as I saw in the documentary, the world saw Whitney as this incredibly strong talented figure when in fact, the footage reveals how emotionally fragile she really was and really didn’t have the tools to deal with all that fame brought her. She knew it too. In a 1996 interview with Oprah she poignantly stated, “Success doesn’t change you, Fame does”.
So when the pressure builds and builds there has to be a relief valve of some type and an important part of our job as parents is to provide those tools, to teach those safe passages of how to deal with the pressure. If not, you get cracks, whether it’s self-destructive behavior, depression, suicide, or in Whitney’s case, drug use. And it’s all too common and I’m not just talking about rock stars dying before they get old.
How exactly we do that is the hard part. But we have to. Otherwise someone may write and produce a documentary about your dead kid.
The Whitney Houston song I mentioned in this post, “Greatest Love of All” topped my list of age appropriate classic rock songs. That post is here.
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