Whitney Houston's sudden death will not materially impact the music world, which does not lessen the tragedy of a great voice stilled too soon. But Houston was an emblem of a different time, when pop culture was not nearly as fragmented as it is in the digital age. Even Adele, expected to walk off with all the major Grammy awards on Sunday, has not had the pervasive reach that Whitney Houston had during her heyday in the late '80s and '90s.
Songs like "I Will Always Love You," "I Wanna Dance With Somebody," and "The Greatest Love of All" were unavoidable; they were part of our common culture. The sales figures that she (and the other top stars of those days) reached are unlikely to ever be approached again.
Houston's brand of pop was rooted in gospel, but burnished to a pop sheen that millions loved. Even those who didn't love that sound had to admit that her voice was an instrument worth ... well, singing about.
Of course, the flip side of her enormous presence -- as both a singer and an actress -- was the fact that she fought her demons in public view too. She was essentially out of music for many years, and has long since become a staple of oldies and easy listening radio formats. There are three teenagers in my house right now and none of them know who she is. But she was rumored to be in contention for a judging position on the hit TV series "The X Factor," and seemed like she might have finally put her much publicized drug problems behind her.
It's too soon to say that those problems proved too much to overcome, especially since we don't know the cause or even the location of her death as I write this. And presumably the Grammy writers and producers are frantically scrambling to come up with something for Sunday night's Grammy awards.
For the moment, it's enough to say that one of the brightest stars of what now seems an irrevocably bygone era has gone out.