Whitney Houston, 1963-2012
Anti/semipopular artists follow their muse wherever she leads them. But pop stars modulate their artistry in concert with an equally unknowable audience. Sometimes the modulations result in redolent struggles that tell us something about nationhood, history, public vs. private, democracy, whatnot. Just as often they result in anxious compromises, cynical pace-keeping, or crappy music. Whitney Houston had it all. She left behind at least two masterpieces - the rock critic's wet dream "Memories" and "Exhale (Shoop Shoop)." And unadorned or mashed up with Kraftwerk, her voice was a wonder of nature. But she also left behind piles of goop goop which betrayed an R&B audience that was never hers in the first place and inspired In Living Color to claim her as part of a Rhythmless Nation. In short, she could please those willing to submit to the majestic will to power of her voice as well as those longing for a more democratic deployment of it. So whom do you serve? Houston never figured it out and even worse, her struggle with the question failed to power her music in the last decade.
Which turns out to have its own paradoxical drama to it. I choose to remember Whitney Houston today for none of the above but rather, "Million Dollar Bill" which I heard for the first time just tonight on the car radio during what I thought was a random Whitney block. The last single off her final album I Love To You, "Million Dollar Bill" features little of the DNA from its Loleatta Holloway sample. Instead, it has the feel of a modest post-soul dance track from a reliable journeywoman - Jean Carne, say. The drama inheres not in a jump back to her session singer roots but rather an alternative history where Whitney Houston enjoys a manageable following and avoids the pitfalls of pop music royalty. Might just have kept her alive past 48.
By Kevin John
I adore Rob Sheffield's Village Voice piece about The Bodyguard soundtrack because much of it revolves around wishing -- a central activity of most fringe Whitney Houston fans. Sheffield pines for a quirkier, braver Houston, one who would dare to duet with John Doe on the X classic "Adult Books" or who would inspire Bobby Brown to record his own "My Name Is Not Susan." Yet this isn't merely some sick rock critic wish-list. It's more a recognition of the fact that although Houston's voice is one of our era's best, it's been squandered (until now) on hack songwriting and arrangements that go boom, sound- and sales-wise.
The hipper among you might find such Sheffieldesque wishing as supremely wasteful as, well, listening to Whitney Houston. Why wish for something that the conservative diva would obviously never even consider doing? I mean, there's about as much chance of such collaborations coming to fruition as there is that Ms. Houston would, say, get together with Bill Laswell to perform a Soft Machine cover -- which, by the way, she did. The song is called "Memories" (from Material's One Down album, Laswell's 1982 discombobulated disco experiment). And, what's more, it happens to be just about the loveliest ballad in all of pop music. Whereas later in her career, Houston's voice would signify little beyond "I have a great voice," here Houston conveys the fettered, haunted emotion of the lyric without grandstanding and with brilliant control.
But think of it -- Whitney Houston actually knows who Soft Machine are! The universe is stranger than Matador's hallowed release schedule would have you believe. It was undoubtedly with this idea in mind that Sheffield went forth imagining the best of all possible pop-music worlds. To paraphrase his equally brilliant piece on Roxy Music, he and those of us who know Houston's potential have been condemned to wander the Top 40 landscape in exile, haunted by the memory of "Memories," hoping against hope that she would someday aim for its beauty too intense for the mortal ear. Hosanna -- that day has finally arrived.
The second I saw Houston's elegant, up-to-date look on the cover of My Love Is Your Love, I knew that this would be her best album. It seems so inevitable, although I'm not 100 percent certain why. Because The Bodyguard was such an unexpected culturefuck, maybe? Because she actually did fulfill the promise of "Memories" with "Exhale (Shoop Shoop)" -- a hymn for our faithless, stressed-out time? Because the last few years have been great ones for R&B? Because the 90's in general have been a great ballad decade? Whatever the reason for it happening now, the reason My Love Is Your Love is such a good album is simple -- it's the music.
Houston has chosen fresh new songwriters, artists who have been partially responsible for the revitalization of R&B. It's evident that Houston's desire is to be part of the zeitgeist, rather than just passing through it via universal songs such as "The Star-Spangled Banner." You can hear the change immediately. Whitney comes out of a digitized loop on the first track, "It's Not Right But It's Okay," with the most narrative detail of her career, nailing her philandering man through credit card receipts and caller ID. It's one of three lively, off-beat productions that benefit from the player-piano aesthetic of Rodney Jerkins (who had huge success with it earlier this year on Brandy and Monica's "The Boy is Mine"). Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott offers up charitable star plaints in "In My Business" and "Oh Yes," Houston's sexiest song ever. And the sultry skank of Wyclef Jean's title tune proves that Houston can do universals sans bombs bursting in mid-air.
But it's the music of Houston's voice that puts most of these songs over. This is the first time she's been willing to di(v)e into her songs. That is, she's willing to explode her ever-important facility into odd phrasing and multi-tracked chaos, a strategy adopted by such megastars as (The Artist Formerly Known As) Prince, Michael Jackson and the Madonna of Bedtime Stories. She gamely attacks Elliott's goofy melodic shapes in "Oh Yes," and sounds like she's having fun dipping her voice on the last syllable of "you were so masculine." She's sisterly trading off vocals with Faith Evans and Kelly Price on "Heartbreak Hotel," although her best duet partner remains herself. She's exciting when she scats and improvises and tells the engineer to turn her up. It's said that Houston recorded this album in just two months. Imagine how great the next one will be if she cuts it down to a month.