Sunday, September 13, 2009
Perhaps the most thankless part of criticizing popular music is post-analysis of the review. Whereas buyers of albums have their tastes and stars selected for them by record labels to an extent, the critic must never fall into this state of affairs. It’s not easy because critics are music lovers themselves and music lovers only really criticize once they’ve fallen out of love. Critics must stay in the nexus of such emotional upheaval to pointedly encourage or, more direly, assault musical complacency. The feedback leveled against me by several U2 fans of my No Line on the Horizon review has nothing to do with actual music but with my daring to criticize the band in the first place.
Well, the axes will grind again because now it’s Whitney Houston’s turn. Houston, aka the Voice was the woman whose stratospheric rise in the mid-80s paved the way for future black female soul singers. They’ve all been influenced by her in some manner…from her many talentless clones to the current ‘it girls’ Beyonce and Rihanna. She was the first of the Clive Davis-led fembots that rose through the Arista stables to gain global superstardom. Without her there may have been no Vegas opening for Celine Dion, no Mimi being emancipated or sentimental musings from Deborah Cox, et al. Now, if you for even a second thought that the non-emergence of any of these singers would have been right as rain, then you get the perilous scope in which Houston returns with I Look to You.
Perilous because the music industry eats its own stars in the end. Houston may not end up a walking plastic-surgery disaster like Michael Jackson but her emotional scars are just as devastating. An ill-timed divorce, allegations of drug abuse and the skeletal-frame health she looked in at a MJ tribute show years ago have wagged tongues of even her most ardent fan. Her resurgence is akin to that of the doomed Anne Rice vampire character, Akasha. If you’ve read that brilliant novel then you see the same fated parallels: the revered yet out of place goddess returning to conquer a scenario that holds her as key yet running totally oblivious of her participation.
I Look to You is more than an album; it is a timely PR stunt to launch her career back on track. So, it features big names contributing songs, including R. Kelly and Alicia Keys. Million Dollar Bill, written by the latter, isn’t bad but in true Keys manner, it asks little of Houston vocally and the lyrics are far from revealing. In a sense it is totally fitting that the song should sound so nice yet empty. Kelly tries to unearth more with Salute but despite the feisty lyrics, Houston’s vocals cannot match its insistency. The loss of her tremulous voice hits the listener immediately. Several of the dance-oriented tracks (Nothing but Love, Like I Never Left) set up for something totally mind-blowing only to turn technically competent and curt. Without Houston providing her trademark vocal firepower then unfortunately these songs serve more for curriculum vitae purposes than anything else. Her remake of A Song for You comes the closest to a bona-fide hit but again her trained vocal use curtails it before it can spin blissfully out of control. Some clever DJs will no doubt splice it up in the clubs to a much greater effect. I Look to You is thus divided into dance tracks and ballads but if the former just fail to catch afire then the latter never get going at all. Which is odd because Houston has never been engineered for sustained club purposes. Ballads have always been her bread and butter but here they feel like spam. Dianne Warren contributes the cold title track and Houston barely avoid cracking up on the boring I Didn’t Know My Own Strength.
Clive Davis is quoted as saying that the album’s aim is to side-step popular music trends and to keep Houston’s influence intact. This is not surprising as her career, like the music industry in which she’s inexorably tied, operates on this motif. No one expected to hear the infamous ‘crack is whack’ refrain used in a sample but smothering her recent personal tumult with feel-good music is equally insulting. It’s as if the past decade of her life, all the ugliness involved, can be avoided if not too much emphasis is put on it. Whereas other soul singers naturally turn their pain into personal art that reflect truthfully a state of mind, Houston through her handlers acts as if she is above discussing it all. Hasn’t this shadow approach been the hallmark of her career for far too long? Would the end result be just as wooden if she dared pen a few tracks herself? Also, when one considers it, after nearly twenty-five years as a megastar what do we really have been allowed to know about the woman behind the voice?
Davis treats Houston just as carefully as his music empire but his short-sightedness has never been so at fault. Houston is no longer relevant in popular music and neither are big labels. The evolution of music is leaving both ideals behind. I Look to You will no doubt debut no.1 on Billboard but then sink fast as the next big release comes along—ironically it should be Mariah Carey’s latest—and no amount of couch-time with Oprah will garner new fans if Houston doesn’t get ‘with it’. I Look to You never cracks a realistic hint of pain behind its making for too long, instead it slips rigidly back in place once things start to get too real.
Therein lays the extent and overwhelming problem of Houston’s legacy however. She was the last of the great four pop stars tied to the big label system (MJ, Prince and Madonna being the other three) and she’s now the only one left caught up in it still. As long as that system continues to breathe then the prospect of the real Whitney Houston emerging from years of puffed-up divadom is dim. As the years creep up on her and with her once great voice gone one wonders though if she will realize her irrelevance too late. How much longer is she willing to be the product of other people’s perspicacity and talent instead of reclaiming her zeal for belting out big tunes again? After a decade of perfecting the art of saying pretty much nothing at all, now is the time for the Voice to ring out truthfully for once with (he)art.