Great Talent, Pop Music & the Legacy of Whitney Houston
I want to share a long running debate I have had with some of my friends for years. The question is at what point if any, should an artist submit to or break from the mainstream of low musical expectations and plot an uncharted course of musical trailblazing? By low expectations I merely mean making music that is simple and without much substance and yet may sell millions, based on the name, talent and credibility of the artist.
When I look at the career of Whitney Houston for instance, I see a woman with the voice truly sent by God. Her debut album is exceptionally classic. It has a variety of cuts such as, “You Give Good Love,” Saving All My Love For You, and George Benson’s remake of “The Greatest Love of All.” She also featured up tempo hits like, “Thinking About You,” and “How Will I Know.” There was no song you had to skip over. What a way to shoot out of the cannon. Houston became a household name based on that release. She was the hottest thing smoking! I thought she would have the musical significance of Aretha Franklin and Natalie Cole. The problem I have with her now is that her first release is STILL her best… by far if you ask me.
The music from Houston after her debut has been mostly pop dance hits and watered down ballads that seem to be targeted towards white audiences. Its not that I have a problem with white audiences either. Lord knows they buy and enjoy music too. But the issue for me was that she started out soulful and audiences both white and black rallied around her music. It was R&B album with a touch of pop that was so good, IT crossed over and the mainstream came running. It was the mid 80s so it was almost impossible not to have any elements of pop. We know from the sounds of Motown as well as that of the jazz greats – and has such been proven with Hip Hop, that white and mainstream audiences will follow good music. Houston brought something so exceptionally special to the table that she was totally embraced by the most sophisticated musical lovers as well as the simple. She was one of only a few artists who could have done an R&B album, then turn around and do a pop record, then gospel or jazz, even country – and still her music would have been anticipated and celebrated. That’s how good she was. The last time we’ve had such a talent who had the courage to stretch himself like this was Ray Charles. Check his catalog. In addition to the be-bop and pop stuff he is well known for, he was also a top selling country performer. He tried all kinds of music. Because he was a true artist who could master any genre.
Houston dabbled with gospel on the soundtrack of, “The Preacher’s Wife,” as well as a few duos with her good friend CeCe Winans. She never did jazz or country. We did get a lot of dance hits from her, and she did some good work on the soundtrack of, “The Bodyguard.”
Now the take I get from some of my friends is that she had to go for the money. Pop music sells and that’s the bottom line. She simply gave the people what they wanted. I say that’s fine…if she was Beyonce’. Beyonce’ is a great performer, but hardly has the chops of Whitney. Whitney brought them in with an R&B album. So even if her people felt she had to do a pop record to bring it all the way home, after that she had the stuff to write her own ticket. After her album, “Whitney,” a very good pop record, this was the perfect opportunity to explore greater musical heights. This is what Madonna did after doing popcorn bubblegum records like, “Holiday,” “Lucky Star,” and “Crazy For You.” Madonna didn’t bow down and become a slave to the mainstream, but became a trailblazer believing she had the stuff to stretch her audience. And she did! Cause she’s Madonna dammit! And she still got the millions. Whitney had the same juice but did no such thing. I don’t know whether to blame her for not recognizing her own potential or her handlers for selling her out for a dollar. But as one who adores and appreciates the art form of great musical genius, I don’t care how much money she made or how many CDs she sold. From the pure artistic perspective her musical career failed miserably. Had she not taken the path of least resistance, she would be recognized as a musical icon – a diva beyond reproach. Instead, she is thought of more to be a drug addict who had a crazy assed husband. That’s my take – Whats yours? Did Whitey give us the best of her musical potential?
P.S. – If you think I’m crazy look at the career of Marvin Gaye. He started off in the Motown assembly line of being a pop crooner. He decided that his music was not significant enough and did, “Whats Going On.” This is where his career took off. He’s not known for, “Heard It Through The Grapevine,” or “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” with Tami Terrell. Berry Gordy was totally against What’s Going On the single. Said it sounded too jazzy. Marvin had it released without Gordy’s knowledge. Though initially infuriated, once he saw the first week sales he acquiesced and demanded that Marvin complete the album. Gaye said yes under one condition… “I have to do it the way I want it done with no interference.” Gordy again has to roll with it. The rest is history.
Tomorrow we celebrate the great composers and producers.