Look Who's Ticking
From the beginning, Whitney Houston has been the most resistable of pop divas. This has very little to do with what her longtime mentor and molder, Clive Davis, persists in calling "her instrument": a voice so rich, malleable, and highly polished it was destined (and, clearly, groomed) for mainstream success. But the strictures of that success have always seemed unnecessarily tight. Potentially thrilling, Houston's voice has instead been channeled into the sort of mechanical perfection and pull-out-the-stops showiness that Celine Dion has turned into a joke. Considering what she's gained, it might be perverse to ask what Whitney gave up or repressed in the ruthless process of pop refinement, but one can't help wondering. Her spirit? Her soul? Her self?
What exactly that self might be is one of Whitney's many mysteries. Perhaps because she's so shut off within her music, she seems more inaccessible than most celebrities. While other performers convey the illusion of closeness, of intimacy shared in a song, Houston maintains a safe emotional remove. This discretion, this control has a certain appeal; it's authoritative and professional, and suggests the mastery of one's craft and one's feelings. It gets much respect, but gives little back. No wonder Houston was able to make a chart hit out of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the height of the Gulf War. Anthems come naturally to her. She's good at conviction, fervor, and moral uplift. She has a way of giving the emptiest songs urgency without wasting unnecessary emotion. She leads the choir; she marches on. And radio programmers follow.
It's no surprise that she's made two of the most annoying and popular records of the past decade, "The Greatest Love of All" and "I Will Always Love You." In both songs, she expresses feelings so extravagant, so much bigger than life that they'd be comic if they were at all believable. But Whitney doesn't need our belief; she just needs our complicity our willingness to submit to her undeniable vocal power and pretend that it means something. Why resist? She will survive. But at what cost?
Who would Whitney Houston be, what would she sound like if Clive Davis had not decided to make her his pop princess? By keeping it safely cradled in productions by predictable nonentities and middle-of-the-road craftsmen like Narada Michael Walden, Kashif, David Foster, Michael Masser, and Babyface, Davis has treated Houston's "instrument" like a bomb that could go off at any moment. With her new album, My Love Is Your Love, he allows that bomb to start ticking; the inevitable explosion has been thus delayed, but its very imminence is exciting. Meanwhile, we have a record that is Whitney's sharpest and most satisfying so far. If we still come away from it wondering, Who is this person? at least we've got a few more solid clues.
There is, for instance, Whitney's remark in Billboard about her state of mind going into the record: "I wasn't into the syrupy kind of vibe. I just didn't feel like singing about 'I Will Always Love You.' I'm a working mother, I'm a wife, I'm an artist. There are so many things that go into that, and it's not always like, 'Everything is beautiful in its own way.' " That didn't stop her from leading off the project "Her First Studio Album in Eight Years," the ads all remind us with the overblown, anthemic, can-I-please-get-this-song-out-of-my-head? "When You Believe" duet with Mariah Carey. Mariah's publicity refers to this song also included on The Prince of Egypt soundtrack as well as her own #1's collection as "the landmark duet." The singers are almost too well-matched: two scary, fine-tuned machines whose mannerisms mesh in a climax of Star Search proportions. For much of the song, I can't tell them apart, but Mariah's voice is rather more feathery, Whitney's more aggressive, and together they hit all the inspirational buttons with chilling determination.
Babyface produced "When You Believe," delivering the expected emotional crescendos: wave after wave of feel-good choirs and sweeping strings; sentiment squared and squared again. But all his booming magnificence sounds inflated and out of place on Houston's album, which has been skewed to more intimate, quotidian, and earthy passions. Since at least half of these songs involve Whitney singing about love gone from bad to worse, they bring up the usual extramusical concerns, like what's up with this Bobby Brown shit? In this confessional culture, we expect virtually all forms of expression to be, to one degree or another, autobiographical. If Houston hoped to squash those expectations with My Love Is Your Love's unprecedented disclaimer "The events & characters depicted in this album are fictitious, & any similarity to actual persons living or dead, or to actual events, is purely coincidental" she doesn't succeed.
Houston tackles the mess head on in one of the album's most exhilarating cuts, Missy Elliott's "In My Business," reportedly the result of "a long conversation" between Missy and Whitney about life in the spotlight. Missy provides a scratched-up neofunk track so Whitney can drag out the dirt and dismiss it as jealous sniping. She gets to air some nasty digs at Brown ("They ask what have you done lately?"), repeat the prevailing gossip ("They say we won't last/They're predicting that it's over"), and even have a moment of doubt ("Should I believe it?") before singing, "Don't they know I've made up my mind?" If this isn't cathartic stuff for Whitney, it is for her listeners, and Elliott gives her production an appropriately bitchy bite.
Even more cathartic are the through-with-being-your-fool songs like "I Bow Out," "Heartbreak Hotel," "I Learned From the Best," and the record's knockout opening track, "It's Not Right but It's Okay." This last was produced by postNew Jack whiz kid Rodney Jerkins in a style that mirrors his Brandy and Monica hit, "The Boy Is Mine." Instead of that song's liquid harp intro, "It's Not Right" begins with an equally hypnotic marimba run, its nervous repetition underlining Whitney's witty, anecdotal detailing of a relationship gone bad. By the end of the song and without once overplaying his hand Jerkins has not only sent Whitney into a froth of righteous fury and recrimination, but given her the perfect exit lines. "I'm gonna be all right/I'm gonna be okay," she chants in a mantra that wouldn't have been out of place in Waiting To Exhale, but not before getting off a few more pointed zingers like "I'll pay my own rent."
Lest anyone think this is a rehearsal for leaving Mr. Brown, the album contains a number of love songs that are just as convincing. Elliott supplies a great grind track called "Oh Yes," ending with a series of aching affirmations that sound like a soulful version of Molly Bloom's closing monologue in Ulysses. Jerkins whips up an even headier postdisco breakdown for "If I Told You That," and gets the dark, anxious streaks in Whitney's vocals working. Lauryn Hill turns out a stripped-down, insinuating cover of Stevie Wonder's "I Was Made To Love Her" whose only disappointment is the unnecessary gender switch (you know Janet wouldn't have done that). And Wyclef Jean and Jerry Duplessis ace them all with a slow, sexy, nearly empty reggae groove for the album's title cut and its most over-the-top declaration of love. Whitney, zeroing in on the gritty nexus of reggae and gospel, takes the song to church while underplaying its grandiosity the sort of ideal balance she's rarely struck before this. It would be ungenerous to say, About time. Congratulations, however qualified, would be more appropriate. Whitney remains a mystery, but she's opening doors, and any light on the subject is welcome.
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