Wednesday, 2 September 2009

It's not right, but it's OK

Great news for fans of throaty, ballad-bothering divas - the queen is back and she's sounding... well, she's sounding a bit average actually. Whitney Houston, believed by many (including American Psycho Patrick Bateman) to be one of the finest singers of her generation, has finally got her life back on track and is ready to reclaim her rightful place at the top of the charts.

Unlike most model-turned-singers (Naomi Campbell for instance) Whitney exploded onto the music scene with a 13-times platinum album and three Grammy nominations. More importantly, she had a voice that could cause tectonic plates to shift involuntarily. By the time her follow-up album emerged, she was the most recognisable African-American face on MTV (Michael Jackson doesn't count, since his face wasn't recognisably African-American).

Not everyone was happy about Whitney's cross-over appeal, with some black critics suggesting that she was selling out her soul and gospel roots with generic radio-friendly pop. Whitney disagreed though, stating "if you're gonna have a long career, there's a certain way to do it, and I did it that way. I'm not ashamed of it."

The hits kept on coming, and in 1992 Whitney proved that she was more than just a set of industrial bellows with a voicebox attached. She appeared opposite Kevin Costner in The Bodyguard and managed to turn in a reasonably competent performance as a chart-topping singer/actress - clearly a dramatic stretch. However, exploding speedboats and Gary Kemp aside, the real legacy left by the movie was a cover version of Dolly Parton's classic 'I Will Always Love You'. Here, Whitney took a gentle ode to an unsustainable friendship, and turned it into a gut-wrenching, ear-hammering love song that lasted longer at number one than some artists' entire careers.

And that's when it all went a bit crack-pipe shaped. Whitney's marriage to Bobby Brown became a drug-addled nightmare of rumoured domestic abuse, parental interventions, and the dirtiest bathroom outside of Trainspotting.

Aside from a lazily produced album in 2002 that felt so rushed it could have been recorded in real time, Whitney disappeared off the radar. In the meantime, her record label churned out a never-ending supply of compilations to keep fans satiated and remind them that she was still around.

Finally, in 2008, a new track leaked to YouTube. Called 'Like I Never Left', the song was rumoured to be the result of new studio sessions for a freshly divorced, detoxed and made-over Whitney who was ready for a proper comeback. Cleverly acknowledging her diminished profile in recent years, the song claimed that Whitney had always been around, and was ready to pick up where she left off. Photos also emerged of a clearly rejuvenated Houston that thankfully eradicated the memories of her painfully thin and sweaty appearances in 2001.

So now, here we are on the eve of Whitney's first new material in seven years. Early reviews are in, and they're looking pretty good. Although everyone's going out of their way to apologise for the lack of guts and throaty gravel in her once-signature sound. Yesterday, Whitney also gave an exclusive 'comeback concert' broadcast on Good Morning America, and fans were dismayed to discover that the voice isn't what it once was. According to reports, she struggled to hit the notes and at times had to call upon the enthusiastic crowd to fill in the gaps.

Sadly, this is what happens to big voices as they get older. Mariah Carey's voice seems to have broken into two pieces, making her high notes sound as though she's swallowed a dog whistle. And Whitney's aunt Dionne Warwick now just talks through her biggest hits rather than try and sing them.

There's a silver lining here though. As young wannabe singers line up to audition on shows like The X-Factor and American Idol, they'll continue to tackle the songs made famous by the big-voiced divas, and come off worse for the comparison. But at least now they can take solace in the fact that there is a gap in the market. It's one Leona Lewis, and more recently Alexandra Burke, have capitalised on. Whitney may not be the one to beat anymore, but surely her legacy is sufficient enough to ensure pop immortality.

1 comment:

  1. One of the Creative Directors in NY had his heart set on producing the "Back from Hell: Britney & Whitney" tour back in 2006(?)... there's one idea that remains relevant...