Monday, 13 February 2012

Remembering Whitney Houston Whitney Houston burst onto the music scene in 1985 with her self-titled LP which had four number one hit singles on it, including “The Greatest Love of All,” “You Give Good Love” and “Saving All My Love for You,” plus it won a Grammy Award for best pop vocal performance by a female and two American Music Awards, one for best rhythm and blues single and another for best rhythm and blues video. She was also cited as best new artist of the year by Billboard and by Rolling Stone magazine. With all this hype one might expect the album to be an anticlimatic, lackluster affair, but the surprise was that Whitney Houston (Arista) was one of the warmest, most complex and altogether satisfying rhythm and blues records of the 1980s and Whitney herself had a voice that defies belief. From the elegant, beautiful photo of her on the cover of the album (in a gown by Giovanne De Maura) and its fairly sexy counterpart on the back (in a bathing suit by Norma Kamali) one knows that this wasn’t going to be a blandly professional affair; the record was smooth but intense and Whitney’s voice leaped across so many boundaries and was so versatile (though she was mainly a jazz singer) that it’s hard to take in the album on a first listening. “The Greatest Love of All” was one of the best, most powerful songs ever written about self-preservation and dignity. From the first line (Michael Masser and Linda Creed are credited as the writers) to the last, it was a state-of-the-art ballad about believing in yourself. It was a powerful statement and on that Whitney sung with a grandeur that approached sublime. Its universal message crossed all boundaries and instilled one with the hope that it’s not too late for us to better ourself, to act kinder. Since it’s impossible in the world we live in to empathize with others, we can always empathize with ourselves. It was an important message, crucial really, and it was beautifully stated on this album.
Do celebrities deserve their own Kaddish? Joseph Kugelmass’ thoughtful response to my Whitney Houston post is instructive: Most celebrity deaths are not emotional events for me. I cared a lot more about Amy Winehouse’s death than I do about Whitney Houston’s death, for two simple reasons. I like a lot of Amy Winehouse’s songs; I like exactly one Whitney Houston song (“I Will Always Love You”). I thought Winehouse was maybe going to produce a lot more good music; Whitney’s career seemed over. While it may seem callous to calibrate my level of mourning according to what is, or isn’t, in my iTunes library, I would argue that when it comes to celebrities, there’s no other reasonable standard. That’s what it means to make your living as an entertainer. Nonetheless, like everyone else, I was deluged with blips on my social networks, expressing deep grief over Whitney’s passing. Most of this grief, if not in fact phony, was at least greatly exaggerated. Like so many other things that people do in relation to popular culture, it was a weird, projective emotional performance, designed to convince oneself and others that one has the right emotions in the right amounts. The performative aspect of compulsory mourning is what bothered me as I half-listened to the television yesterday morning. The depthlessness of the mandatory praise heaped upon her bothers me for the same reason Patrick Bateman’s encomiums to popular culture do: they’re necessarily rote and necessarily reductive. Joe’s right to point out the different etiologies of “fake emotions and real emotionlessness,” but the fact that they produce the same result should be troubling. But far from being troubling—or even acknowledged—anyone who points this sad fact out is attacked for not taking advantage of death to draw attention to problems of race and sexism in America today.* Because that is a far more respectful way to treat the dead. That said, I encourage you to read Joe’s post to learn his Five Rules About Celebrity Deaths, as his general plan is far better than listing who you’re allowed to mourn before-the-fact. *It goes without saying, but it’s worth saying again: there’s no one post to rule them all. This blog will be one thing at one moment and another in another. In point of fact, I’m about to “[feign] some kind of cultural superiority … even though [my] opinions and tastes are largely shite of the first water [that force most commenters to] make an effort to shaddup when [I] want to wax long and philosophical about some mainstream film [I'm] content to call art.” If you’d like to take me to task for that, by all means, go at me with gusto. Just try to make your criticism coherent.

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