Why Does It Hurt So Bad: Whitney Houston (1963 – 2012)
On Saturday, February 11, 2012, singer Whitney Houston passed away in Beverly Hills, California. The cause of death was unknown at the time this article was published. She was 48 years old. Whitney Houston emerged from New Jersey, seemingly preordained to sing. Her mother Cissy was a successful and well-respected gospel singer, her cousin is hit-making vocalist Dionne Warrick and she is a God-daughter to Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. She achieved unprecedented success as a female recording artist, released 22 top 10 pop hits, including 11 number ones. The only female artist with more is Mariah Carey (18), and The Beatles (20), Elvis (18) and Michael Jackson (13) are the only male artists with more. Whitney Houston’s voice was one of nearly incomparable power and sweeping emotional range. Her voice is the reason that women like Mariah Carey, Celine Dion and Christina Aguilera among a host of others decided that they wanted to be professional singers. Having said that, her voice is also the reason that we forget that there was a time were some believed that she represented everything that was wrong about Black Music.
Whitney Houston’s was the face of, what writer Nelson George dubbed, the “post-soul era.” In the 1980’s, after Civil Rights banter had calmed down and been replaced with the sound of Black assimilation, singers like Lionel Richie, Michael Jackson and Anita Baker represented a new kind of Black music, no longer dripping with sweat-drenched bass lines, and gutterial, raspy “sangers,” singing about lost love and hard times. The era of the “buppies” were eager to hear music that reflected their integration to higher society; music more about fun, but in a safe, wine and cheese type of environment. And although Richie, Jackson and Baker were, indeed, huge crossover draws, they still descended from more funky, soulful beginnings and controlled their destiny by writing and producing their own work.
Whitney Houston’s arrival to the music world at large was a changing of the guard, both on a large and singular scale. Arista Records’ then president Clive Davis signed Houston in 1984, which prompted him to almost immediately jettison his previous chanteuse, Phyllis Hyman. Hyman, one of the most dynamic singers of her generation, struggled to cross over the way Davis would have wanted and her own ideas about how to best harness and use her voice clashed with Davis. With Houston, the stage was set. She was an interpreter, majestically performing compositions from pop songwriting heavyweights like Michael Masser (“The Greatest Love of All,” “Didn’t We Almost Have It All”), David Foster (“I Have Nothing”), Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds (“I’m Your Baby Tonight,” “Exhale (Shoop Shoop)”), and Diane Warren (“Run To You,” “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength”). The combination of Whitney’s voice, her elegant evening gowns, and seemingly scientific song craft, her first two albums, Whitney Houston (1985) and Whitney (1987) sold over 22 million copies combined in the U.S. alone. Some members of the Black record buying community, however, believed that such a landmark voice should not be relegated to singing pop music, but instead lend her pipes to songs with more emotional and socio-political depth. That same community communicated this sentiment at the 1989 Soul Train Awards when she was booed as she took the stage.
For her third album, Davis recruited Babyface and partner L.A. Reid to inject some urban credibility to her already prestine brand. 1990’s I Your Baby Tonight included a well-construction blend of her winning pop formula with Babyface’s sophisticated, yet hip R&B. As a result, songs like “All the Man I Need,” “My Name is Not Susan” and the title track kept Whitney on the platinum road. But 3 million copies was a far cry from her two huge selling efforts, perhaps due to her losing touch with her massive white audience. She forever destroyed her conflicting professional issues with the release of The Bodyguard Soundtrack. A joint movie/album juggernaught project, the music, in particularly her version of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You,” catapaulted Houston into heights not seen by a female artist since, selling 17 million copies and securing Houston’s place as one of the most talented and successful singers in American History.
For her next three projects, soundtracks to Waiting to Exhale (1995) and The Preachers Wife (1996) , and studio album My Love is You Love (1998), Whitney re-embraced the contemporary soul music that was incorporated back in 1990. Continuing her work with Babyface, and up-and-comers like Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins (“It’s Not Right But It’s Okay”) and Wyclef Jean (“My Love Is Your Love”), Houston only extended the gap between herself and all other big voiced female artists. By this time, R&B and Hip-Hop was at the forefront of mainstream music and Whitney’s power ballads were now old hat. It seems that Houston made a smooth transition with the smash single “Heartbreak Hotel” which featured R&B newcomers Faith Evans and Kelly Price. This was quietly another changing of the guard, as Evans and Price represented Houston’s dual sides, the polished professional vocal technician in Evans while Price represented Whitney’s gospel roots from her childhood days in Newark. Not only that, but Whitney had internalized her quiet anger with husband Bobby Brown for his infidelities into they lyrics of “It’s Not Right,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” and Diane Warren ballad, “I Learned From the Best.” She had finally used her voice to express her own demons, making the songs all the more compelling to listeners, fulfilling the promise that past critics saw in her from the start.
Unfortunately, My Love Is Your Love signaled Houston’s inevitable decline. After selling four million copies and winning her sixth Grammy Award for “It’s Not Right But It’s Ok,” Whitney’s best days as a recording artist were now behind her. However, she did remain in the collective minds of the public, for all the wrong reasons. Due to her increasing drug habit and questionable public behavior, Houston became tabloid fodder not unlike her friend and peer, the late Michael Jackson. She experienced the time-tested practice of the media knocking you off your perch for the sake of a story. Many believe her 15 year marriage with New Edition singer Bobby Brown, who once flourished as R&B’s bad boy, was the blame for her demise, pushing his own addictions onto her. While this may be the popular opinion, it cannot be ignored that following their 2007 divorce, Brown was able to kick his habits and continue his performing career without incident, while Houston’s once stain-glass voice was unequivically affected. Although her final album, 2009’s I Look To You went platinum, her ability to match her studio vocals in front of a live audience had definitively diminished. You see, Bobby Brown, although enjoying success both in New Edition and as a solo artist, never had to contend with the unsurmontable expectations and demands that Whitney did. At the end of the day, as a member of a group, Bobby had five friend – friends since childhood – to lean on in one way or another. Whitney was a solo artist in a very real way: when it goes right, it’s because of you, and when it goes wrong, it’s because of you. We can never know the weight Houston had to carry on her shoulders even as her career significantly waned.
When it’s all said and done, when an artist like Whitney Houston dies, the true nature of her fans are revealed. Like many others that have passed on, fans of Houston showed that we hold on to hope as long as the artist is still with us. All joking about crack pipes, and “Being Bobby Brown” episode outbreaks aside, many thought Houston had just one more in her. One more great statement on stage that she was still the best many had ever seen. We hold on to that faith because of “I Will Always Love You;” we hold onto that faith because of “Count on Me;” we hold onto that faith because of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Perhaps it was fate that on the night that she passed, she was set to attend the annual Clive Davis Pre-Grammy Awards Party. It was 28 years before at that the very event that Davis unveiled her before the world, as then 20 year old Whitney dazzled the crowd of industry movers and artistic giants. Reading renditions of songs like Michael Jackson’s “I Wanna Be Where You Are,” she projected that rare combination of youth and experience; innocence and wisdom. Such a pairing is reserved only for legends, and Whitney Houston is, if nothing else, a legend, therefore, she will live forever.
Thank you listening, and remember: Black Americans may only be one tenth of the country’s population, but that tenth is talented.