The oddest tribute to Whitney Houston has to be American Psycho‘s Patrick Bateman’s monologue about her self-titled debut album:
It’s hard to choose a favorite among so many great tracks, but “The Greatest Love of All” is one of the best, most powerful songs ever written about self-preservation, dignity. Its universal message crosses all boundaries and instills one with the hope that it’s not too late to better ourselves. Since, Elizabeth, it’s impossible in this world we live in to empathize with others, we can always empathize with ourselves. It’s an important message, crucial really. And it’s beautifully stated on the album.
What’s particularly odd, to me, about this speech is that it was fully true of Houston in the novel’s cultural setting of a decadent America in the late 80s. Bret Easton Ellis is, of course, fucking with us: Houston, for whatever else she ultimately represented, was the queen of soft, unoffensive pablum custom built for hits. But what’s tragic about it, of course, is that it doesn’t prefigure Houston’s series of mental and physical and spiritual collapses. By the late 90s, Houston had become a parody of divahood, a tragic case study in superstardom and substance abuse. Though she had become a grotesque shell of her former self, you always got the sense, like with Michael Jackson, that she still had enough innate talent to wangle some kind of comeback.
And, my God, that talent! There’s a cynical way of reading Houston’s career—i.e. her vapid pop was so slick and dull and commercial that it scarcely seems human. And though I’m a little sympathetic to that reading, it’s impossible to ignore this woman’s voice. Just listen to the captivating acapella version of “How Will I Know” that is being bandied about on a lot of the online tributes and remembrances. And that voice will forever and always be that note from “I Will Always Love You.” You know the note: it’s the show-stopper, the one that raises the hairs on your arm, the one that prevents even a casual listening of the song. That single sustained note carries Houston’s entire career: everything Houston ever was and could have been is embodied in that single note. But like Bateman’s monologue, there’s nothing in that note that suggests anything like the genuinely tragic mess at Whitney Houston would become. In that sense, then, that note is a cliché, an overly familiar narrative trope whereby someone with startling talent squanders and wastes it after allowing it to flower for the briefest of moments. It’s the oldest, most boring story in pop culture, and this latest chapter is just as dead sad as any of the dozens of others.