Did Whitney Houston’s crossover fame cost her?
It’s hard to remember now, with hip hop dominating the black music landscape, that there was a time when black female singers ruled the RandB charts.
Even before the ascent of Whitney Houston, legendary voices like Gladys Knight, Patti Labelle and Patti Austin scored huge hits. But when Houston made her debut in 1985 with her self-titled album, a new kind of star was born.
Houston was then a former “Seventeen” model with a significant musical legacy. Dionne Warwick is her cousin, and her mother, Cissy Houston, was a respected session singer turned solo artist who was part of a group called The Sweet Inspirations. (It’s Houston’s voice that’s heard as part of the backgrounds on Aretha Franklin’s classic, “Ain’t No Way.”)
Brought up in Newark, N.J., Houston showed talent early, but was brought along slowly by her mother, who wanted to ease her daughter into the business. But by the time Houston was a teenager, her voice was undeniable, and after a well-received performance at a New York City showcase, she signed to Clive Davis’ Arista Records.
At 22, Houston delivered on that precocious promise with her first CD and its hit “You Give Good Love.” The pop market embraced the young artist, whose voice, while trained in the black church, had more of a pristine tone than the traditional soul stylings of Houston’s RandB predecessors. In fact, while Houston quickly rolled out hit after hit, her mainstream success brought criticism in its wake.
Despite the strides of Motown, Stax and Chess Records at the dawn of the 1980s, RandB music was still considered outside the pop realm. If a black artist could “cross over” — meaning attract an audience wider than their urban base — they could command greater record sales, bigger tours and more money.
Michael Jackson was the first artist to see this happen on a grand scale, single-handedly creating an opening for blacks to go mainstream by becoming the first black artist to be played on the then-burgeoning music video channel, MTV.
The rise of Prince and Madonna, as well as the groundbreaking multi-genre playlists of deejays like New York’s Frankie Crocker, would help more black artists cross over than ever before. Houston’s voice and look — wide-smiled and chisel-featured, slim with once-natural hair that was permed straight for her first album cover — made her the female artist that would most benefit from the change afoot in music.
The pop stardom that Beyoncé, Rihanna and Jennifer Hudson take for granted now was ushered in on Houston’s multi-octave voice.
She reflected the ethos of the ‘80s. It was the decade where Gordon Gekko declared, “Greed is good” in the 1987 movie “Wall Street,” and Reaganomics instituted policies disastrous to the middle class. Crack began to flow through inner city streets and what black Americans wanted most, after the upheaval of the ‘60s and ‘70s, was to assimilate. Buppie aspirations — including earning Ivy League degrees and rising through the ranks in white companies — was the order of the day. Houston was a black artist who achieved similar goals through music, enriching herself and becoming famous outside the black realm by virtue of her pop voice and songs that traded soul for accessibility.
Black music fans felt that Houston’s pop success distanced her from the black community and criticized the singer for not following the black songbook of gospel-based RandB. While her celebrity gave her exalted status among African Americans in the way that basketball star Michael Jordan’s did, like Jordan, she was seen as an artist interested more in assimilation than race loyalty. At Arista, Davis’ imaging of Houston purposely detached her from her gritty urban roots, deleting any obvious black music traditions out of her albums. Davis wanted her to achieve more lucrative pop stardom, not just to line his own pockets, but to make her a superstar not defined by race.
Houston’s success was the evolution of what Diana Ross hoped to achieve: true superstardom that transcended her skin color and background. Both of Ross’ hit movies — 1972’s “Lady Sings the Blues” and 1975’s “Mahogany” — contained her within the black community as the love interest of then-popular black heartthrob Billy Dee Williams (the Denzel Washington of his day), and in “The Wiz,” she starred with an all black cast. Compare that to Houston’s hit movies.
While 1995’s “Waiting to Exhale” did surround her with black actors and actresses, her big box office hit was “The Bodyguard,” three years earlier, a movie in which she starred with Kevin Costner, then one of Hollywood’s biggest white stars.
“I Will Always Love You,” which broke chart records and became Houston’s signature song from the movie’s multiplatinum soundtrack, was originally a country release written by Dolly Parton.
Her aspirations — along with those of black America – lasted through the ‘80s, but the ‘90s came in on the winds of hip hop, changing the music and the mindset of black culture. Now, entrepreneurs were making millions off music that had its genesis in America’s inner cities and their graphic struggles.
Now, you needed street cred instead of bourgie connections. Even the long-held conservatism of HBCU’s adjusted in light of this new black America as college students began to shake off strictures of dress and behavior that had once been desired symbols of the upwardly mobile.
As technology joined this dramatic change in music, voices like Houston’s were no longer in the forefront. Auto-Tune and dominant production made it possible for someone who could carry a tune and look good to develop a career based on catchy, shrewdly packaged and promoted hits, not vocal prowess.
As black America found its inner-city blues, it became less interested in the status quo, instead looking to craft its own view of success based on entrepreneurship and savvy more than education and corporate achievement.
By the late ‘90s, personal turmoil derailed both Houston’s career — and her stellar voice. Drug abuse was suspected, then confirmed. As Houston’s life reflected the downside of celebrity and success, so did the world around her as a 24-hour news cycle, the Internet and the emergence of Facebook, Twitter and reality TV gave license to a the complete erosion of privacy.
As Houston’s voice diminished from the national scene she once dominated, so did the middle-class aspirations of black America. From the wealth of hip hop’s ascendancy in the ‘90s and 2000s came the reality that for most of the rest of the population, the stepping stones of black aspiration, like Houston’s voice, was being eroded. A persistent recession blocked access to the education and employment that generations of black folks looked to support their reach into the middle and upper middle class.
Like black America itself, Houston may have fallen victim to sheer excess. In our post-racial, post-buppie world, where is the love? As a people, our constant need to strive and acquire has impeded our ability to care for one another. We looked on as Houston self-destructed, although what we could have done for her remains elusive. In the end, the outpouring of love she’s now receiving was likely what she yearned for in life — just to know that she was really valued and loved.
As for the black America that she left behind, still reeling from the deaths of other beloved luminaries such as Heavy D, Don Cornelius and Etta James, we can only wonder who we turn to now.
Should we cling to the bourgeois trappings of success we once valued and the education, focus and drive they required. Or to the hip hop sensibility of constant hustle that we must admit is burning us out and placing more value on the acquisition of things than on the caretaking of souls?
It’s impossible to say if Houston’s death will lend itself to more than the public mourning on Facebook and Twitter that has been the response to the deaths before hers. Grief has now been relegated to social media — a tweet here, a post there — and then back to reality.
But it’s time we looked at the fact that all over black America there are people — whether celebrities or not — that are hurting and trying to block their pain with food, drugs, sex, prescription medications and constant work. If we don’t, we might as well get ready for the next round of mourning that could hit even closer to home.
As Houston so beautifully sang, “The greatest love of all is inside of me.” But let’s be real. No one can find that by themselves.
Black America Web