The first concert I ever attended, of my choice, was Whitney Houston at the Summit.
I was 12 years old, and I still remember almost every moment. Her long, sparkling, green gown with a slit up the side. The small stage, settled in the middle of the huge arena. My excitement when I bought a T-shirt. And that voice -- sweet and high, commanding and powerful, soulful and poppy all at once. The sound was not of this world.
Tonight's news -- Whitney Houston is dead -- feels like a punch to the stomach. My hands feel like they're moving in slow motion. My eyes are fighting back tears. Everything suddenly feels deflated. (Dramatic, perhaps. But it's the truth.)
Whitney was more than a singer. She was, at the peak of her career, a force of nature. The archetype for the perfect female singer. The voice that every aspiring pop diva emulates, but has never been able to duplicate.
I used to get in fights with my cousins over who was better -- Whitney or Madonna. The teenage insults would fly fast and furious. I was, obviously, Team Whitney, and I defended her ferociously, endlessly, unfailingly. Posters of her adorned my bedroom. I recorded the I Wanna Dance with Somebody on a VHS tape and annoyed my mom with it every day.
That sense of protectiveness for Whitney remained throughout my life -- through her marriage to Bobby Brown, her battles with drugs, her attempts at a comeback. Others lost interest, poked fun, didn't care. There were simply too many reasons not to give up on that voice. Her songs -- classic, rare, remixed -- still populate my iTunes.
The Bodyguard remains a definitive moment in her career and in my life. I cut classes at the University of Houston with a few friends to catch the first showing the day before Thanksgiving 1992. We were giddy with excitement, and it delivered in every way. Glossy, big and bright -- the perfect vehicle for the world's biggest pop star.
The soundtrack -- those grand, gorgeous songs! -- remained on repeat for months in my CD player. I Will Always Love You remains a vocal master class, and no reality show rendition has yet to capture the majestic quality of her take on I Have Nothing. Nothing since has come close to that power.
I saw her several more times in concert and was disappointed when rumors of her drug use proved true. But I remained loyal and took joy in her triumphs. I was lucky enough to attend 1999's VH1 Divas concert, and her performance there -- in tight red leather and curls -- was ferocious and fantastic.
And make no mistake, her iconic take on the The National Anthem is still the best to date.
My partner and I took in Waiting to Exhale its opening weekend at the River Oaks Theatre, and the auditorium crackled with sass and energy. Women literally jumped out of their seats in approval.
I still love her fantastic My Love is Your Love album and its stellar singles. The gospel shimmer of the title track. The silky soul of Heartbreak Hotel. The diva-with-a-whip appeal of It's Not Right, but It's OK. Flawless.
The last music we got from Whitney, 2009's I Look to You, was a hopeful step forward. It wasn't perfect, but it was good. Very good in moments. At its best, the album channeled her struggles into several songs. Her voice was no longer where it once was, replaced by the wear and tear of a tumultuous life. That was no more evident than on the title track:
About to lose my breath/There's no more fighting left/Sinking to rise no more/Searching for that open door
And every road that I've taken/Led to my regret/And I don't know if I'm gonna make it/Nothing to do but lift my head ...
Whitney's last project, Sparkle, is scheduled for release later this year. And like always, I'll be there opening day for the first showing. I still look to you, Whitney. And I will always, always love you.