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The Emancipation of Whitney Houston

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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 à 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.

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About Tan The Man

Tan The Man writes mostly about film and music. He has previously covered events like Noise Pop, Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival, South By Southwest, TBD Festival, Wizard World Comic Con and WonderCon.
  • daryl d

    Nice article. I have always loved Whitney Houston. Her voice is so angelic and I hope she doesn’t go the same route as Mariah Carey by hiring a bunch of rappers to make her relevant. Mrs. Houston has talent, Mariah doesn’t.

  • jradd72

    Whitney is in a class by herself. Yes I agree that current pop and r&b styles have changed over the past 15 years but these ‘new age’ singers just cannont compare. There are really only 2 female singers during this time who has come near to Whitney vocally and they are Cristina Aguilera and Alicia Keys. I feel once Whitney is ready to release her album her fans will be there to pick her up. You go girl, we are here for you.

  • reets

    I truly enjoyed the article, but you missed a couple of important facts: First, the combination of those three women on the same song crosses two to three generations of fans and that in itself should guarantee success, and second, Whitney herself could sing a cereal box and go platinum! Finally, Whitney is and always has been a Gospel singer and right now the biggest stars are singing Gospel and if she releases a Gospel album she will be equal to Donnie McClurkin and Kirk Franklin. Because as you said the Girl CAN sing and this is her first love.

    Thank you for not tearing their marriage apart and pointing fingers because that was their marriage and if people put us in the same fishbowl how many of us would survive and/or stay together that long? I truly hope that they get some serious counseling and implement some serious GOD in their lives and work this thing out the right way this time!

  • But she sort-of already did gospel with her soundtrack to “The Preacher’s Wife.” And that did well, but not well enough I think. I always saw Whitney as more of a jazz artist than a gospel one.

  • Yomi

    l am so glad to know she is putting her life back on track, and working towards a recorvery of her carer.One of the things that is good about your article is that you understand that we all make mistakes, and putting emphasis on her mistakes will do no good. About her come-back album, we know she can sing, and understand it will take her times to get to that peak she was, we would be patient with her and pray that God will give her the inspiration that goes with her talents, and she will get to her place in music industry less than expected time.

  • W

    The future is bright for Whitney!!!! because you just got to remember, during the formal years of her career she did things people that thought was impossible, it was like God saying what you do I’m going to blessed. Its like God molded her to be the best(physically, vocally). As long as she has that voice and they mold her songs to be mainstream, but when you hear it you say “This is Simply Whitney” you will hear the world hold her the Queen. Remember All Things Are Possible!!!

  • W

    Also, for the Jazz and Blues thing thats and insult to her and her fans. Because she is ONLY known for singing Big Power Ballads with amazing vocalbility. If she toned it down with Jazz and Blues(Not to kick Jazz and Blues)She will defeat the whole purpose of what she was born to do-that is the most incredible singer on Earth….

  • Nicole

    I really liked the article about her. Whitney id an amazing singer and I know that she is oing to have an amazing comeback.

  • Whitney Houston is a legend. She is the greatest singer of our generation. I was influenced by her too. I hope she comes back, I miss her poer, her tone, the emotion and soul.

  • Sam

    I was never a fan of her music, but, given the state of radio and video today, would welcome a healthy Whitney back in an instant. At least she could command a song without being attached to a rapper or stripping down to her underwear.