Watching reactions to Whitney Houston’s death as they came in through my television, via Piers Morgan on CNN, and through my computer screen via everyone on Twitter, I was, I’m a little embarrassed to admit, somewhat surprised by the severity of the language being used. Her death was repeatedly referred to as a tragedy, of course, and there was plenty of talk about her truly remarkable technical skills as a singer, as well as the staggering levels of success she experienced as a recording artist—indisputable and immediately self-evident, all of it.
But then there was also a lot of talk about the effect she had on the industry, about how important she was, as she broke ground and blazed trails and all that. For a few hours, it seemed to me like exactly the kind of overstatements we’re always making about recently deceased famous people, or even just regular non-famous people in our own lives, I guess. Then I read a few things that mostly made sense of it for me. NY Times writer Ben Sisario tweeted, “Without Whitney, there’d be no Mariah, no Xtina, half the contestants on Idol. She’s the model who took gospel completely into pop,” and though you can (and I imagine a good amount of you will) question the value of the era she ushered in, the facts are the facts, and they matter greatly.
Unsurprisingly, Ann Powers also had a perfectly lovely piece go up for NPR, full of deep insight and level-headed mourning. One paragraph in particular stands out:
That Houston died mere steps from that stage, only to be discovered by her bodyguard in one of the thousand hotel rooms where she’d laid her head, is strange poetry. I’ve long thought that someone should write an opera about this brash, brilliant woman, born a child of soul and raised to womanhood within the heart of crossover pop. She broke hearts, and was herself broken. She suffered, but not in her music, which even at its saddest was grounded in a sense of dignity and the determination to transcend. She defined a style that so many would adopt, yet her talent was unique.
In these lines, though, is also the most succinct explanation I could offer for why there’s not a single other pop star of quite this renown that has had less of an impact on my life, personally: “She suffered, but not in her music.”
Powers means this as a compliment, of course, but for me it comes off as the worst kind of insult. There’s a can of worms being opened here, I realize, about the way we romanticize the pain and suffering of our pop stars, with everyone from Kurt Cobain to Amy Winehouse deftly, sadly illustrating where that can get you, but these are tough habits to break, and despite everything modern music writing tells me over and over again, I’m still not even sure they should be broken.
When I listen to Whitney Houston’s early material, especially that crazy run of seven number-one singles she had between 1985 and 1987, I first hear the heavy-handed production techniques of the era, which somehow managed to make everything sound at once grotesquely expensive and insultingly cheap—a distinctly characterless jumble of low-impact pop. Right there in the middle of it is that voice, often vastly underutilized and literally glossed over, covered up by copious amounts of studio trickery. When her vocals do shine through, it’s momentarily breathtaking, but the lack of emotional depth in the words themselves, combined with the glitzy Broadway delivery, makes it difficult for me to sustain any real connection. The voice was big, but the songs were small—a dubious sounding claim, I know, given the degree to which the music-buying public embraced them, but timing is everything: the public has a way of finding exactly what it’s looking for, and sometimes the public doesn’t want to be bothered with art of any real heft.
One of the other ideas I kept hearing expressed was that the world had been robbed of a special talent, and this sounds almost right, but I also can’t help but feel like she never really gave herself to us in the first place. When her life started to go off the rails in the late-90s, she basically disappeared, reduced to a handful of high-profile public appearances that were always sort of a letdown. Because she couldn’t bring herself to impart her work with the pain and suffering she was experiencing in her private life, she simply stopped working. In this way, yes, it feels like we were robbed, but even more so, it feels like she was too: it’s hard not to think of what could have been if she’d viewed her art as something she could use to make sense of her life rather than something she could only use once she’d already made sense of it, which, sadly, she never did.
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