On Saturday evening, I was at Cafe Yumm! enjoying my weekly Yumm Baby bowl and reading the Facebook wall on my Netbook when I noticed a friend of mine in Atchison KS wrote something about Whitney Houston. Then I saw another person mention something about Whitney. I didn't know what was up, so I clicked over to the Huffington Post and saw the headline. Whitney Houston was found dead in the bathtub of her hotel room. Yikes! She was 48 years old. In the summer of 2009, I also found out about the death of Michael Jackson through friends' comments on Facebook. Two of the biggest superstars of the 1980s are now gone, both tragic deaths.
Whitney's death ended an amazing week in music. On Sunday, Madonna gave an electrifying performance at the Superbowl that was free of any controversy on her part. On Monday, Rick Astley celebrated a birthday, and on Tuesday, Garth Brooks turned 50 years old. Also on Tuesday, Van Halen's eagerly awaited album reuniting David Lee Roth with the Van Halen brothers was released. Now, Whitney is gone.
Twenty-five years ago, 1987, was a critical year in music. That year, Michael Jackson released his long-awaited followup to his ultra-successful Thriller album, Bad. Whitney Houston's sophomore album, Whitney, was also released that year, being the first female artist to debut at #1. This same year saw Madonna release the soundtrack to her film Who's That Girl? after a successful string of hits from 1986's True Blue album. Less significant, perhaps, Prince released another album, as he did annually for quite a number of years. However, this one was a critical and commercial success. Of course, I'm talking about Sign o' the Times. Those four: Michael Jackson, Madonna, Whitney Houston, and Prince, were the biggest singers of the 1980s. If you were to take a DeLorean back to 1987 and ask my 15 year old self which of those four would still be selling albums and be as popular in 2012, I would have likely have said Whitney Houston. I never thought she nor Michael Jackson would be DEAD. While Prince does sell albums on his own label, I believe his last release, Lotus Flower, was a bomb. Madonna's newest album will be released next month, and while she has not been able to sell as many copies of a single album as Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston have (10+ million copies) since True Blue, I believe that she consistently sells 3 million with each release and she still commands attention with each release and has sold out tours. In the end, Madonna will be far more successful than the other three. But, this post is not about Madonna.
Whitney Houston came onto the music scene in 1985, with the single "You Give Good Love." The video is simple. She's rehearsing in an empty room and a guy with a camera walks closer to her, filming her. The song is a typical 80s ballad, but the voice! And her look! It was love at first sight and first listen. She was young. 21 years old, I think. Her next three singles from this album would go straight to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles Chart: "Saving All My Love For You" (where she is the mistress in love with a married man), "The Greatest Love of All" (a positive message song about teaching children the importance of loving themselves), and the upbeat "How Will I Know?" where the fun video shows that Whitney Houston can't dance. Or as some people have said: "She dances like an awkward white girl."
The album really gained traction in 1986 and was a huge success, one of the best debut albums of all time. I received it for my birthday in 1986 and listened to it a lot. I still don't know what it was about Whitney Houston or this album that captivated me. I was never a big fan of ballads in the 1980s. I did not really like Sade (though I liked her song "Smooth Operator") or Anita Baker (at least not until her Giving You The Best That I Got album in 1988), but Whitney Houston just captured my attention like no other. She was my favourite singer from 1986 through 1988. Before her, Tina Turner was my favourite female singer and after 1988, Debbie Gibson became my favourite female singer for a few years. Whitney was also the second African-American that I had a crush on. Lisa Bonet, who played the eldest daughter on The Cosby Show was the first. Before them, I never thought African American women were attractive or beautiful. Shameful, I know. But now, I know that beauty is found in all races and those of mixed racial heritage.
Because of the awesomeness of the debut album, I was very excited for her follow-up album. It was one of the most highly anticipated albums of all time for me (in terms of how excited I was). I counted down the weeks and days until it was to appear in stores and on that day, I ran with my allowance money to the PX to buy it (I was living on an Army post in Fulda, West Germany at the time).
Her debut album was self-titled (Whitney Houston). Her followup was rather unoriginal. She named it Whitney. I loved the cover design, especially the use of blue. Her first single was the upbeat "I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)" which was the "How Will I Know?" of her new album. "Didn't We Almost Have It All" was next and basically her "Greatest Love of All" for the sophomore release. "So Emotional" is another upbeat song with a great video. The ballad "Where Do Broken Hearts Go?" could possibly be the sequel to her "Saving All My Love For You." Its such an awesome song and video, too. Those four singles all went straight to #1, making Whitney the only female artist to have 7 consecutive #1 singles. Her single "Love Will Save the Day" didn't have enough juice to make it to #1 and broke her chain. What surprised me the most, though, is that she did not release "Where You Are" as a single. This is my favourite song of hers and one of the best vocal performances I've heard from her.
These singles took her into mid-1988 and then in the fall, she had an awesome song for the 1988 Summer Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea, "One Moment in Time" (certainly in my Top 5 of favourite Whitney songs). That is such an inspiring song, both lyrically and musically. Could Whitney do no wrong?
Certainly! Between 1988 and 1990, I moved on in my musical interests. Whitney was replaced by Debbie Gibson as my favourite singer, and onto the scene came Paula Abdul, Karyn White, Pebbles, and Taylor Dayne, not to mention Wilson Phillips, Milli Vanilli, and Bette Midler. I also became interested in Johnny Clegg and Savuka, and Midnight Oil, which moved my interest in a more international direction as far as music goes. So when Whitney released her third album in 1990 (she did not call it Houston, like I expected that she would), I'm Your Baby Tonight, I wasn't all that interested. I hated the title song. It was too much noise for me and would sound better stripped down with a quieter melody. I did buy the cassette tape and was not impressed. More ballads that failed to resonate like her earlier ones.
In 1991, on the eve of the Gulf War to liberate Kuwait from Iraq, Whitney hit a home run with her rendition of the National Anthem at the Superbowl. Her version was so popular that it was released as a single and was played in church on the Sunday before I went off to Basic Training in March 1991. I still get chills listening to her performance of it. On the single, she also recorded my favourite patriotic song that I believe should be our national anthem: "America the Beautiful."
Sometime in the early 1990s, Whitney got involved with bad boy Bobby Brown. I did not like this pairing at all and completely lost all respect for Whitney when she married him. Though I blame Bobby Brown for destroying Whitney's career because of his jealousy of her success, I've read some people's opinions that Whitney was always a bit ghetto and not America's sweetheart like she was marketed as. I have no idea, though, since I don't know her personally. What I see, though, is that Whitney was the complete opposite of Tina Turner. Tina was plucked from anonymity by Ike Turner and they became a popular singing duo in the 1960s. After Tina got tired of getting smacked around by Ike, she walked away and didn't look back. She soared to even greater heights of success while Ike's career went into the toilet, with drug addiction and jail. Whitney was already at the heights of success when she got involved with Bobby Brown, and his abusive control of her and drug addicted ways pretty much destroyed her career, though it would take a few years. The sad trajectory of Whitney's life should be a message for all women out there: getting involved with a bad boy can shorten your life!!! Don't do it. Sure, it might be exciting for awhile, but after how many cuts and bruises can you take before its no longer any fun?
At the end of 1992 and into 1993 came perhaps the pinnacle of Whitney's career: the movie and soundtrack The Bodyguard. Kevin Costner, who was America's leading actor in the early 1990s, dusted off an old movie project that was supposed to star Diana Ross and retrofitted it for Whitney Houston in her debut acting role. It wasn't much of a stretch, for Whitney plays a successful singer, Rachel Marron, whose handlers hire a bodyguard when threatening letters from a stalker are found. Though Whitney did not give an Academy Award nominating performance, she did a decent acting job (I doubt Madonna would have been able to pull it off) and this film featured a major scene at the Academy Awards, in which singer-actress Rachel was nominated for Best Actress.
The most phenomenal thing about the movie is the choice of Dolly Parton's more than a decade old single "I Will Always Love You." This single broke the rules that radio stations like to impose, which is namely a lengthy acapella intro before the music starts. But it spent an unprecedented 14 weeks at #1 on Billboard's Hot 100 Singles Chart and helped sell millions of copies of the album, which is on the all time best selling film soundtracks charts. Though it is a good song, my personal favourite in terms of melody, lyrics, and vocal performance is "I Have Nothing." That should have been the movie's main theme song and winning the Academy Award for Best Original Song from a Motion Picture. Other singles include "I'm Every Woman", "Queen of the Night," and "Run To You." Whitney's rendition of the classic children's song, "Jesus Loves Me" is the best version I've ever heard, as I've always hated that song since childhood. Hate it not because of the lyrics, but because of the melody, but Whitney makes it her own.
Three years later, Whitney made a smart move for her second movie by playing alongside the talented Angela Bassett (who played Tina Turner in What's Love Got to Do With It? in 1993) in an ensemble film about four middle class and professional African American women in Phoenix, Arizona. I've only seen Waiting to Exhale a couple of times but don't remember much about it, other than the hilarious line Whitney says after having an unsatisfying sexual encounter, "Damn, I could've had a V-8." Though she was not a singer in the movie, she did contribute a few songs to the soundtrack, including the song "Exhale (Shoop)" and "Count On Me" with CeCe Winans.
For the Christmas season in 1996, Whitney's third (and best) role came in the form of the wife of a pastor who finds the marital spark due to the mysterious "Church appointee" that comes to help during the holiday season. This movie, The Preacher's Wife, allowed Whitney to do a project that long had been dear to her heart: record a Gospel album. Though the soundtrack does have a few Gospel songs, there are still a lot of pop ballads and uptempo songs, including my personal favourite, "My Heart is Calling" which was played during the ice skating scene (seen above). It was not released as a single, which was a shock to me. How could this song not be considered "single material"? It has a great, addictive melody and such a great message. The songs that were released were "I Believe in You and Me" (a ballad that is essentially a rip-off of "I Will Always Love You") and "Step By Step" (a good uptempo song). The other songs that I love on this album are "I Love the Lord" and "You Were Loved." In fact, when I heard the news that Whitney had died, it was the song "You Were Loved" that first came to mind. I don't know if she truly loved herself, though. Getting involved in a destructive relationship with a jealous and abusive man is not a sign of a healthy love. What successes she might have achieved had she married someone of Denzel Washington's stature and temperament!
I was in college when Whitney released an album with a more urban R&B sound in an attempt to get back to more soul music. She even did her hair in the style of Lauryn Hill. Songs included "Heartbreak Hotel", "My Love is Your Love", and "It's Not Right, But It's Okay." I wasn't a fan of her new sound, which is kind of ironic, because I was loving Madonna's new techno-ambient sounds of Ray of Light (also released in 1998).
Whitney attempted a comeback in 2002 or so. She had an interview with Diane Sawyer and tried to address the drug rumours. She didn't do a convincing job and said the phrase that I unfortunately remember her by: "Crack is whack!" She looked like she was on drugs when she did the interview. The comeback album was called Just Whitney (alluding to her first two albums), but I had given up on buying her music after what I consider her last hurrah before she declined: The Preacher's Wife. It was all downhill since then. Her husband was able to jump on the reality show craze, which revealed too much about their personal lives and only increased Whitney's alienation from mainstream America. A few years ago, another comeback was attempted, with a new album and an interview with Oprah, which I've never watched. I just could not watch the trainwreck of this lady's life. I prefer to think of her in the role of The Preacher's Wife. Imperfect, but with a good heart and a sense of humour, and most of all, an amazing voice.
I hope that voice is joining the chorus in the spiritual dimension. No matter how sad it was to watch the decline of a beautiful and talented lady whose music and voice touched millions of people, I hope that her soul will find the peace and joy that seems to have eluded her for the past decade and a half. In 1998, she had a duet with another incredible voice: Mariah Carey. I loved that song, particularly the opening lines: "Many nights we prayed with no proof anyone can hear..." and the line: "We were moving mountains long before we knew we could" and the chorus: "there can be miracles when you believe." Such a powerful song by two dynamic voices. That's power ballad at it's best!
So, Whitney, I hope that you know that you were loved. I had a crush on you as a teenager and I want to thank you for the years of incredibly beautiful music and for giving us the movies The Preacher's Wife and The Bodyguard. I wish you had made better choices in your romantic relationships, though. It may be unfair to blame Bobby Brown for what happened to you, as you were part of it, too. Taking responsibility for our lives is what we are called to do. May your life be a lesson to women everywhere who might be drawn to bad boys. Think again, ladies. I've rarely heard a case of a happy ending when a woman falls into a dysfunctional relationship with a violent and jealous man. As Whitney's life shows, all the beauty and talent in the world can't save you from the demons you carry inside of you. She belongs to eternity now. I hope God has heard her singing this song: