Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Thoughts on Whitney Houston

Whitney Houston’s death is incredibly sad, and it has an added shock value for us oldsters. This point has been driven home for me in the weeks since her passing, particularly when talking about Whitney with my younger friends. Most people under the age of 30 seem to only know Whitney as the tabloid “crack is wack” train wreck she became in the last decade, which is ironic considering the cheesy, churchy, “America’s Sweetheart” Whitney of the 1980’s. In a decade marked by decadence, the harshest chemical Whitney Houston was publicly known to ingest back in the day was Diet Coke.

Sheesh. It doesn't get more eighties than this.

I confess that I was never much of a fan, especially in her early days. In fact, when Whitney Houston burst onto the music scene in the summer of 1985, I didn’t pay her much notice. Between her first single You Give Good Love and the cover of her debut album, where she’s made up to look like Sade (a “lite jazz” singer from that era whose voice and musical arrangements put me right to sleep), Whitney Houston didn’t have a lot to offer a girl like me. She seemed way too adult contemporary and—even at the age of twelve—I was well on my way to becoming a new wave freak, obsessed with bands like Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, a-ha, Blondie, and pretty much anyone else I read about in Star Hits magazine (my Bible).

Then about six months later, Whitney’s single “How Will I Know” exploded, she won like 80 Grammy awards, and suddenly there was no escaping her. Seriously, the woman was EVERYWHERE. My opinion of Whitney and her music went from mild indifference to outright revulsion. Her scream-singing on “How Will I Know” drove me up the damn wall and MTV played the song’s cutesy, annoying video every twenty minutes. And then—to add insult to injury—her next single, a ridiculously corny, faux-inspirational turd called “The Greatest Love of All” was even more loathsome and ubiquitous. When those two songs hit it big, Whitney’s record company appeared to ease up on the adult contemporary angle and began heavily marketing her to girls aged twelve and up…which happened to be my demographic.

To be a middle-schooler from 1986 to 1988 meant that I was surrounded by girls who were absolutely crazy about Whitney Houston. She particularly struck a chord with the kind of girls who did well in school and were active in their church youth groups, the same girls who swooned over Richard Marx ballads, grooved to Debbie Gibson, and insisted that George Michael was “way too cute” to be gay (!). Basically, Whitney Houston was for girls who were Not Me. She was a squeaky-clean, All-American pop princess who was apparently too pure to even go on a date. I remember reading a quote from her in a magazine where she said something about not needing a boyfriend because she had Jesus, or some such horseshit. That was exactly the kind of crap that made me roll my eyes, plug into my Walkman, and retreat even further behind the tattered copies of Star Hits I kept hidden inside my textbooks. I stared at pin-ups of Morrissey, willing him to deliver me from the icky sugar-coated mainstream American drivel that threatened to suffocate me.

Of course, at that tender age I was too naïve to realize that Whitney Houston’s goody-goody persona was a painstakingly constructed image; one that was manufactured by her record company and maintained by her publicists, her manager, and everyone else who had a stake in her music career. I was also blind to the notion that many of the artists I worshipped—Duran Duran, Deborah Harry, Echo and the Bunnymen, et al—also had a team of people who made sure they looked and sounded in a way that appealed to their core audience (i.e. kids like me). While I don’t think the acts that I adored were as tightly controlled by their people as Whitney was by hers, at the end of the day the record industry is just another business with a product to sell; a product that is deliberately packaged to attract the sort of people who will buy it.

At any rate, Whitney Houston’s virtuous façade seemed to work for her. Her second and third albums—released in 1987 and 1990 respectively—were multi-platinum sellers. She collected Grammys hand over fist and even made the national anthem a Top 20 hit when she belted it out at the 1991 Super Bowl, further cementing her status as America’s Sweetheart. Of course, I still couldn’t be arsed to care about Whitney. She was still inescapable all throughout my high school years, but she became easier for me to ignore—especially since by then I had made some friends who shared and respected my taste in music—a pretty major accomplishment when you’re in high school. I even hit pay dirt my senior year when I found a cool boyfriend who was into Depeche Mode and New Order.

In 1992—the same year I graduated high school—Whitney made her film debut opposite Kevin Costner in The Bodyguard. Despite Whitney’s involvement, I found myself intrigued by the film’s premise and surprised my New Order-loving boyfriend (and myself) by dragging him to the Cineplex to see it. We both ended up loving it; I’m a sucker for movies about impossible love affairs stamped with a fixed expiration date (see also: Before Sunrise, Harold and Maude, etc.). I also was impressed with Whitney’s acting chops. She was no Meryl Streep, but she wasn’t bad. I also liked that her character was a radical departure from her goody-goody image; she played a temperamental diva who drank, smoked, had sex and even said “fuck” (that last bit was particularly jarring—this wasn’t the same girl who once claimed to have a boyfriend in Jesus). I even dug her version of Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman” from the film’s soundtrack. It wasn’t enough to make me a bona fide Whitney fan, but she’d definitely gone up a few notches in my estimation.

Fast forward ten years. Whitney had starred in a few movies and scored a few more hit singles, but her personal life had seriously gone down the crapper, fueled by rumors of a hardcore drug habit and her shitshow of a marriage to Bobby Brown. The capper was that bizarre Diane Sawyer interview in 2002, which seriously screwed with my head. I mean, I was glad to see that Whitney (and/or her PR team) had long since dropped the Goody-Goody Jesus’s Girlfriend shtick, but it was sad and a bit shocking to see how far she’d actually fallen.

To put it in perspective, I’ll try to craft an analogy that makes sense in modern day terms: Imagine a twitchy, coke-eyed Taylor Swift acquiescing to a prime time sit-down with Diane Sawyer. And Diane Sawyer—in her best “concerned journalist” tone—gently pressing Taylor Swift to address the drug rumors that have plagued her, particularly ones concerning her alleged crack addiction. And Taylor Swift blurting out, “First of all, let’s get one thing straight. Crack is cheap. I make too much money to ever smoke crack. Crack is wack.”

And Taylor Swift’s husband, which…hmm…who would be the modern Bobby Brown equivalent? Let’s see…abusive, petulant man-child with a string of mediocre R&B hits under his belt—Chris Brown, perhaps?—(the shared surname is a creepy coincidence when you think about it) fidgets next to Taylor Swift and first denies, then admits that he smokes weed, although “it’s not an every day thing. Um, it’s maybe every other day.” But, he assures Diane, he only does it to keep his bi-polar disorder “at a level.”

And if you can conjure up that freakish scenario in your mind, then you have some idea how surreal it was for aging Gen-Xers like me to watch Whitney “I-believe-the-children-are-our-future” Houston sidestep questions about a crack habit while Bobby “Humping Around” Brown lied his face off about his own drug use and his well-documented abusive tendencies.

The whole thing is hard to watch, from Whitney’s nervous non-answers about her addictions to the way she instinctively hugs herself and leans away from her husband when he sits down next to her. But what bugged me the most was the crap-a-doodle-doo spewing forth from one Bobby Brown. He’s not only an abusive, drug-addled douchebag, he’s a piss-poor liar. Seriously, this an actual exchange:

Diane Sawyer: “Have you ever hit her?”
Bobby Brown: “No no no no no no no.”
Whitney Houston (quietly): “What’s ‘hitting’ mean?” (like ‘hitting’ is some abstract concept that could be interpreted a number of ways).
Bobby Brown (trotting out an old standby): “I have four sisters, four aunts, a mother, two daughters.” (Oh yeah, that’s right. Men who have female family members don’t abuse women.) He then piles it on even higher: “I love…I love the beauty of woman.” (?) Then, apropos of nothing, he grabs Whitney’s leg and says, “This is mine.”


Of course, we all know what happened next. While Whitney finally divorced Bobby in 2007 and went to rehab in 2009, her freedom was short lived. In the end, she was done in by her addictions.

R.I.P. Whitney. She wasn’t perfect, she wasn’t horrible. She was just human.

Edited to add: Maybe I’m getting soft in my old age. but over the years I’ve warmed a bit to Whitney Houston’s music—a few select songs, anyway. Although I love the goofy girlie-ness of “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” (and if you’ve never heard David Byrne’s AWESOME version of it, you must do so now), I'm more inclined towards her later stuff, when she laid off the scream-singing in favor of more subtle vocals and melodies. My favorites are these two from the “Waiting To Exhale” soundtrack (a movie that, for the record, I also liked).


Ms Sparrow said...

Coming from a different demographic: You had it right when you called her style scream-singing. This gradually degenerated into hoots and bellows.
The media went waaaay overboard on her death! There are dozens of singers who are more talented than she was and that makes you wonder, will we be subjected to a similar media circus when each of them die?

MissTeaTree said...

I liked her acting. Its a shame to see someone go down like this (anyone). but when I think of Whitney Huston I think of her troubles with drugs and Bobby, not the singles.

commorancy said...

Ms. Sparrow,

Of course, when it's a slow news day, everything is fair game including the much overplayed media circuses of celebrity deaths. However, when two big celebs die on the same day, that's a problem. Farrah's death was way overshadowed by Michael's death. It's unfortunate too because Farrah really deserved more of a media circus than she got (and Michael deserved far far less). Such is life and death, I suppose.