I wrote a little about Whitney Houston for WNEW.com yesterday. There are a lot of better pieces out there, like this one at Any Major Dude With Half a Heart, and this 2006 piece from Salon that captures Whitney’s rise and fall pretty well. A few additional, more personal observations follow.
I remember being deeply impressed with the songs on her debut album Whitney Houston—the zillion-selling singles “You Give Good Love,” “Saving All My Love for You,” “How Will I Know” and “Greatest Love of All,” as well as her first single with Teddy Pendergrass, “Hold Me.” But there was also the gorgeous “All At Once,” which might be the best song she ever found to sing.
On her second album, Whitney (couldn’t anybody think of a better title?), she doubled down on stardom, and the result was thinner, even as the songs sold further zillions. One song in particular can be considered historic. “Didn’t We Almost Have It All” is Whitney playing her instrument at its loudest, occasionally crossing the line that separates singing and shouting. And that’s a pity, because “Didn’t We Almost Have It All” is a song with plenty of power inherent in the way it’s written—it doesn’t need to be oversold. Whitney’s performance makes it a pivotal record in the recent history of popular music. Its success is at least somewhat responsible for a whole generation of female singers who have confused volume with emotion and melisma with soul.
(Twenty-five years later, the production on Whitney has dated pretty badly—all of those shiny electronic keyboards and synthesized drums mark it as a product of a specific moment in history as clearly as if it were sporting a Dukakis-for-President bumper sticker.)
“I Will Always Love You” quickly became the top-selling single at Amazon.com after Whitney’s death. It’s already one of the top-selling singles of all time, and was one of the most ubiquitous records in history during its 14-week run at #1 in 1992 and 1993. Dolly Parton, who wrote it and took it to #1 on the country charts twice, in 1974 and 1982, sang it with a sweetness that lights it up like an ember bursting to flame. Whitney, however, opens up on it like a flamethrower. She also manages to find the previously unknown line between melisma and yodeling, and then steps over it. (The slow, cold opening of “I Will Always Love You” is also one of radio’s great momentum killers, and at 4:32, it’s at least two minutes longer than it needs to be.)
I lost track of Whitney after the early 90s, except for the unavoidable tabloid stuff. In 2009, I played her new single “I Look to You” on the radio, and I liked it—especially the blemishes, where you could hear her reaching for notes, or straining to breathe as she never had to do before. There was real life in those reaches and breaths, however sordid and difficult that life was. Had she followed it with a triumphant concert tour and recommitted herself to her art, it would have made a great story. As it was, the tour featured poor shows, canceled dates, and other assorted embarrassments, and you have to wonder how long it would have taken before she got another chance. Now we’ll never know.
Issues of my personal taste aside, there’s no denying the beauty and power of Whitney Houston’s pure, un-Auto-Tuned voice. I’m listening to “All At Once” as I type this sentence, and it’s simply stunning.
On Another Matter: I learned of Whitney’s death on Twitter just as I was settling in for a show at the Barrymore Theater here in Madison, a former movie theater that’s old enough to be cool and ramshackle enough to be rock ‘n’ roll, featuring Steely Dane. Not Steely Dan, but Steely Dane, with an e on the end—a 22-member conglomeration of local musicians who get together two or three times a year to play Steely Dan songs. (They take their name from the county in which Madison is located.) It’s hard to play Steely Dan’s music, with all of the complexity and weirdness inherent in it, but these people have the chops. It’s the second time I’ve seen them, and they burned the house down again Saturday night. Highlights: Fagen’s “New Frontier,” the only non-Dan song they do, and “Doctor Wu,” which has been climbing my list of favorite Steely Dan songs for the last several years.
Coming next: a crossroads of history, as seen late at night on two weekends in 1978.