Monday, February 13, 2012

Thoughts on Whitney Houston

The community of dying in the modern era: no flowers laid outside hospital gates, but status updates and Youtube links, as together we commemorate the dead. Whitney Houston dying brought the usual raft of videos, remixes and R.I.P hashtags, but also as with other celebrity deaths a cathartic, almost joyful chance to reexamine someone, their life and their career. With Whitney Houston, it felt like even more of a release because we who grew up in the 90s had had to adjust very quickly to the need to dislike her, to dismiss what we had previously loved: that big, barnstorming voice and the easy, accessible melodies she had sung.

If you were aged between 8 and 14 in 1992, you or your sister owned the Bodyguard soundtrack, and you or your sister (OK, you - you don't even have a sister; let's just own up to it) listened to it all the time. Its songs were slow-danced to at parties and you made your parents play it in the car. It was great. (Sidenote: it actually wasn't great; it was OK and she sang the hell out of it. More on this later)

What then happened was that you, your sister, your brother - everyone, we all of us got older, and then Nirvana happened, and thus began the dark years when everyone was forced to pretend they didn't like pop music. It lasted for a decade or so. I remember very well how in those years I had to cast away the previous love of Whitney Houston, and pretend to like - er, the Crash Test Dummies? Soundgarden? I bought a Rage Against The Machine album and tried so hard to like it, it nearly killed me. All the while, in all of us, each and every one of Whitney's words, and every vocal inflection and grating melisma, lay dormant - slumbering throughout, as the 90s gave way to the Strokes and the White Stripes and a bunch of musicians who injected pop into their guitars. Youtube arrived, and we secretly rewatched How Will I Know.

Meanwhile, Whitney Houston herself existed, still. We were all vaguely aware of her continuing progress through the Bobby Brown years, the comeback albums, the TV interviews. She was terrible throughout the 90s, releasing a more 'urban' album in 1998 that had some decent songs on it (Heartbreak Hotel, My Love Is Your Love) but that felt like a misstep: Whitney wasn't beats, she wasn't R'n'B; she was big, glossy roof-raisers! In a rush to adapt, she had gone against her earlier bubblegum instincts.

Later, blessed with Pitchfork and Popjustice's kind permission to enjoy pop music once more, we all revisited the early years. I relistened to Saving All My Love For You, one of her cheap ballady contrivances from the 80s that had been on a mixtape my cousin made for us when I was six: it's pretty bog-standard, apart from Whitney singing the shit out of it. We all started playing I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me) at parties. Look at the video again: Whitney smiles in it! She, along with Cyndi Lauper et al, was the last generation of artists to be 'having fun' in videos, before Soul Asylum came along to ruin everything.

Now comes the reevaluation of a career, and with the joyful opportunities to play once more the life-enhancing pop bouncers, comes the need to be honest in our assessments. Whitney Houston had a singular talent, which was to have a strong, clear singing voice of rare range and power. She was also extremely beautiful. She also had clever pop producers, helping her to make some good upbeat numbers and toss out the cheaply instrumented ballads that sold so well (listen to Didn't We Almost Have It All again: it's so, so horrible). What Whitney Houston didn't have, and this is important, is soul. Her lack of soul is what helped her be so successful. Her fellow chartbusters of the 80s, Michael Jackson and Madonna, had no soul either. (Prince had soul, but he started to stumble around the 90s, and never recovered his dominion) It's not necessarily a negative thing: Elvis Presley had no soul whereas, say, Roy Orbison did. I still love Presley's surface-deep pop songs, even as I love the fuller expression of Roy Orbison's music.

Where it became confusing with Whitney Houston was that she was ostensibly borrowing soul leanings - from her mother, Cissy Houston, her cousin, Dionne Warwick, and her godmother, Aretha Franklin. But what Whitney Houston did - much as Elvis did with the country-blues-rock he stole - was to take the form of the music (the inflections borrowed from gospel, the key-changes, the torch song stylings, the vocal gymnastics, some of the rhythm), rid it of its soulfulness, tidy it up, and re-present it in a pop context. This is what provided her with such clean vocals, such neat lines and such accessible singing: there was by and large no guts, no disquieting lack of self-belief, no conflict in her, to give the songs weight and her performances the ring of authenticity. The closest that she approaches earthiness is in Saving All My Loving ("cos toNIGHT-uh, is the NIGHT-uh, when I'm feeling a-a-a-a-alRIGHT-uh!") and I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me), in the "don't-you-wanna-dance-say-you-wanna-dance" breakdown. But these moments are kind of soul-by-numbers; it feels like she's done it because it needs to be there, so hey-ho, she added it on.

The lack of soul doesn't matter: her vocal performances are great, and those 80s dance songs are great. But the lack of soul does mean that she cannot be considered amongst the greats. Her lack of soul also ruined her later career: because she had presented us with someone so pristine, so self-assured, we didn't believe how low and vulnerable she actually became in the wake of her marriage to Bobby Brown and the drug addiction it brought with it. It also meant that she was unable to keep making that sort of crisp music, because the character no longer existed.

So what do we have? We've got a beautiful, vocally blessed young woman who crossed cultures and defied odds to have her videos shown on MTV in the 80s alongside macho rock music; a woman who sang brilliantly on two great pop hits full of fun and musical abandon; someone who then stepped it up a notch with one song (you know the one) that was sung so perfectly - from the acappella opening 45 seconds to the crescendo full of light touches and vocal swoops throughout the song, leading to the blisteringly loud and storming last verse - that she could never live up to it again. We've then got the woman who came afterwards, whose sadness and despair invalidated the previously straightforward persona we thought we knew, and which made it difficult for her to record as her guise was now broken. So let's, without dishonesty, remember the first one, in all her squeaky-clean, determinedly fun, professionally emotional beauty.