Unpacking My More or Less Complete Indifference Toward Whitney Houston

02/13/2012 9:00 AM |


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.

For more, follow Mike Conklin on Twitter @LMagMusic

12 Comment

  • A lovely, fair post, Mike.

    Even though I should cop to a similar indifference to most of Whitney’s singles (“How Will I Know” excepted, that song is awesome, as is its video), I feel I should suggest, on behalf of some people I know who went looking for emotional depth in them and found it, that the impact of *that* voice boxed into *that* format may have been the point: that Whitney Houston was able, at her best, to convey genuine larger-than-life feeling in exactly the place where many people (especially, let’s say in this particular case, women of our generation during and prior to their adolescence) were most likely to go looking for it, namely, in syrupy and overproduced Top 40 ballads.

    I know you’re waging a doomed but virtuous crusade against the current po-mo critical trend of attributing objective quality to personally significant pop trash, and I so appreciate the integrity of that position that I’m not even going to make a Billy Joel joke here.

  • Listening to Dolly Parton’s version of “I Will Always Love You” really underscores how Houston brought nothing to the song except narcissistic bombast, empty and completely inappropriate to the occasion.

  • Wow. What a totally unpredictable piece by a white, most likely straight, male. Really. Shocking.

  • So straight white males aren’t allowed to have an opinion/reaction to the death of Whitney Houston, in terms of its import to the greater culture?

    I only wish he had written more, and addressed her larger identity as an addict with greatly diminished prestige, and what that might mean.

  • He is of course allowed to have an opinion and a reaction. Just as I am afforded the right to have an opinion about his perspective on the issue…which, given the context, is not surprising.

  • @Yepperz1
    It’d be nice

  • In my opinion, I think it’s a little easy for a white straight male to write off the artistic integrity of someone’s body of work, discounting how challenging it may have been for someone who was not a white straight male to find their voice in an industry famously governed by white straight males. In the time that she rose to popularity, I don’t think our culture was particularly interested in hearing a story like Whitney’s, so she breathed and infused her art into her voice – through whatever song she was moved to perform (or, yes, told to sing)…and I think how the culture reacted to her voice (considering the odds) is enough proof of her artistic prowess to warrant a tad more respect for the impact it had on all of us.

  • And, please feel free to consider these songs “small” in their artistic impact. However, I would consider what it was like to be a gay man in the 80s and 90s, when one of those songs came on and her voice reverberated on the walls of the dance floor, begging you to let go and find your personal freedom (the only place a gay man was often allowed to find it). To me, and perhaps only me, that is one of many ways “art” can have a massive impact on our culture.

  • In my opinion, it’s a little tedious to play the race card just because you disagree with a respectfully offered take that differs from yours. You might as well have called him rockist while you’re at it.

    Even if she was forced to make sterile music by institutional racism, that doesn’t make it not sterile music. And her records didn’t get any less dull when she was a big enough star to do whatever she wanted.

  • Why not wait a week or two after the death of this much loved woman before writing her off? Your whiteness and maleness have nothing to do with it: your snobbery does. She was one of the great talents of the last century. True, there was no suffering in her music, but that is because it was effortless for her, and her was the virtuoso’s joy in perfection. It’s not very perceptive of you to critique a pop-star’s music as “not deep”. That is what pop is.

  • Guys.

    That you don’t like Whitney’s albums, fine, superslick girl pop is not really the type of music I would associate with this publication. Angsty male emoting more so. Boy jazz maybe. And I agree that Whitney Houston never really reached the levels she could have with her recordings, given her talent. Try listening to some recording of her gospel music if you can, very different. I prefer Billie to Whitney myself.

    But WTF. I see why people get annoyed with you as usual. You totally discount the music she made, the impact it had, b/c it seems to lack emotional depth to YOU. What is with you. The arbiters of high and low culture. And you take the comments about white male culture personally, really? Sure you must get that.


  • Ah no. Here is what Whitney did that a lot of other singers (male and female) refuse to do. She distorted her face and looked ugly to hit a note because sometimes you need to do that. So did I love her music? No. Did I respect her talent and her willingness to put it out there? Absolutely.