Part-1: One Moment in Time
Whitney Houston, a/k/a "Nippy", shimmering in a pencil thin white dress, opened the 1989 Grammy Awards with a performance of the pop-ballad One Moment in Time that mesmerizes me.
She starts out cautiously, hitting notes down the middle, sticking faithfully to the melody of a song that is saved from slush by the precision of her diction. Nippy wants us to understand that these are deeply personal truths.
The first clue to the magic to come is the steely certainty she brings to “… my finest day is yet unknown,” which from a place way beyond optimism. A dismissive flick of the wrist marks the ascent into the first chorus. It is one of a series of small gestures that forewarns the tale’s gravitas: “I rise and fall, yet through it all, this much remains, I’ve got one moment in time…”
Nippy takes a few tentative steps towards us, swaying gently from side to side, and wades into the first chorus. She breaks out of the melody for moment, readying herself for the inevitable race “with destiny”, before closing her eyes to step closer to “eternity” - bringing us gently back down to earth for the second verse.
A deep moan reminds us that Nippy started out as a soloist in the junior gospel choir of Newark’s New Hope Baptist church, and brings the church to the Shrine Auditorium and a CBS audience of millions. A gracious wave gathers us round her.
A finger pointed directly at us, lets us know that the story has become deeply personal, and in an instant the cautious searching of the first verse is replaced by a magnificent certainty. We don’t question the braggadocios of “I’ve lived to be, the very best…” because the evidence is plain to see.
An irony-laden snigger separates “I want it all,” from “no time for less”. It marks the point of no return – she’s going for it all on this glorious night, tomorrow and caution, be damned.
Nipping effortlessly in and out of falsetto as she approaches the second chorus, the pace of her delivery seems to quicken. It’s a grand illusion as she is living, as all truly great singers must, at the back of the beat. Soaring through “eternity” to the bridge, she jabs a finger at us accusingly (as if she knew then that we would abandon her later), and holds on to her “one moment in time to make it shine” for dear life.
Assisted by a key-change that pushes her into the upper-reaches of her range, and wrapped in joy, Nippy goes off over the final chorus, delivering note after improbable note, cheered on by an audience that knows it is witnessing greatness. When she accidently and momentarily pulls the mic down to her waist, we witness the startling reality of her voice acapella.
She ends the performance holding “I will be free,” full voice, through a standing ovation that might have gone on forever were it not for the constraints of a live network TV broadcast, because we loved her then – or did we?
The tragedy of Nappy’s life is that she was never free to be Nippy. The tragedy of her death is that she is vilified and remembered more for her addiction that her greatness.
It's taken the shock of Nippy’s death in a tub for me to work out why people who let their kids listen to Rihanna-beating Chris Brown, and brag record collections that include classics recorded by junkies and pedophiles, have so much Whitney-hate – it’s pitiful reactionary story of race, Obama, and what it takes to build a mass-market brand in America.
To be continued: