The Emancipation Of Whitney Houston

Whitney Houston was born to sing. Anyone who has ever heard her rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner” at Super Bowl XXV in 1991 won’t disagree.

But what happened to her? It seems like forever ago that first time I saw her in The Bodyguard with Kevin Costner. The movie didn’t make her a star, but instead shot her to superstardom. The kind, best described as celebrity infamy, reserved nowadays for makers of homemade sex tapes, which can give you instant front page headlines while displacing the latest happenings of an entire war to page six.

Today, it’s a joke. Back then, superstardom meant that everyone in the world — even in those remote parts where English might be the fifth or sixth language — can say your name. Fans followed you just to catch a brief glimpse of your waves and kisses to the crowd.

Those times are gone. That innocence is gone. Some might argue that the concept of innocence never existed, but at least with Whitney everyone wanted to pretend it did. Everyone wanted to lose themselves with the pitches and tones of her voice.

Clive Davis, you lucky bastard. Well, lucky then. Genius now.

Millions of albums later, Whitney was a very successful artist. Then, it happened. The greatest and worst moment of her career happened with the release of one song: her single “I Will Always Love You” from the soundtrack to her feature film debut The Bodyguard. The song dominated (you might even say obliterated) the pop charts.

Although I reckon that not many people can stand the song anymore. Not because people got sick of listening to it all the time, but because the song saddens people to think of how Houston’s life has changed in fifteen years since. I won’t talk about the part of her life with Bobby Brown because I do believe there were happy moments.

The most ironic aspect of her single “I Will Always Love You” is that it’s a cover of a Dolly Parton song. The Country Music Television (CMT) channel ranked Dolly’s version as the number one greatest country love song. If you’ve ever listened to it, Dolly sings it with such passion that you can actually hear the words. With Houston, her voice and her presence overshadow the lyrics to the point where the words become almost an afterthought or even a reflex to the listener.

You could say that effect happens to a lot, if not all, of Houston’s music. Simon Cowell once scolded Katherine McPhee because she sang Whitney’s “I Have Nothing.” “By choosing that song,” Cowell said, “It is like coming out here and saying I’m as good as Whitney Houston, you’re not.”

And the reality (for the most part) is that if Whitney sings a song, then she’s singing it the best that it can be sung, and it will forever be a Whitney Houston song.

Such is the tragedy of Whitney’s career. Her voice is one of a kind. And in that respect, she’s wasting away singing pop and R&B songs. If you rank her voice with that of other angelic voices, she’d be in the top three with Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. Does that give you a hint as to what Whitney should be recording next?

Apparently, Whitney is recording another album with Clive Davis. Like I said earlier in the article, Clive is a genius. In listening to a recent track “Family First” recorded with her mother, her daughter, and Dionne Warwick, I thought how unsuccessful it would be in today’s music landscape. Let’s just say that “Family First” wouldn’t sound right between Fergie’s vastly overplayed “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” or JoJo’s version of “Beautiful Girls.”

Sales expectations shouldn’t be too high for Whitney’s next album if it contained many tracks like “Family First.” So if commercial success can’t be counted on, the next best thing to increase your artistic credibility and integrity, is to gain critical success. Making good music is the first step toward re-establishing musical prowess.

And for Whitney, you have two options (not including Clive’s). One, go the Mariah Carey route and create an alter-ego a la “Mimi” (hence, this article’s title). Two, follow in the footsteps of Fitzgerald and Holiday. Sing blues and jazz music. Those two genres captured true vocals — harmony, range, and passion — better than any other. Go on a nationwide club tour to capture that nightclub feel. Forget stadiums. Forget casinos. Sing in intimate venues to regain your loyal fanbase, to regain the innocence.

With the first option, you’ll get commercial and critical success, but to get them you need radio-friendly hits. Carey has been very good about making music to fit with current trends, but I doubt that Houston will follow her lead (refer to “Family First”). With the second option, at least comparisons with Fitzgerald and Holiday might actually be fair.

Blues and jazz have always had a penchant for outlasting musical trends, having longevity that goes beyond a single generation. With longevity comes legacy. She needs to give people something else to think about other than her rocky marriage to Brown or her supposed drug abuse. She needs to remind people that she can sing you to another place. But most importantly, she needs to free herself from the past.

*** 8:16 PM PST Update ***

Here’s something you don’t see every often. Two sports teams from one city take on two sports teams from another city, and both sets play in the same city.

That’s probably really confusing. It’s 9/10/07. The San Francisco 49ers are facing the Arizona Cardinals on ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” at SF’s Candlestick Park, while the San Francisco Giants are facing the Arizona Diamondbacks on KTVU at SF’s AT&T Park. They’re both open air stadiums, and from what I’m from about five minutes both SF teams were winning.

Niners, stop turning the ball over!

One Reply to “The Emancipation Of Whitney Houston”

  1. Dead on, this piece. Whitney has always been much better than the songs she’s sung. Back in the day when hit songs were often really good songs, an impressario like Clive Davis was a real asset. In today’s soundscape, it is a very different story. I don’t hear very much jazz in Whitney’s voice or stylings, but I do think she needs trend toward art rather than commerce.

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