Sunday, February 12, 2012

Another Music Tragedy

Thoughts on Whitney Houston written before and during the Grammy Awards program.

Whitney Houston was the first American Idol.

To be sure, she wasn’t the first vocalist to ride an onslaught of success based purely on vocal talent. She wasn’t the first platinum artist to have almost no creative control over her career. She was, however, the first singer in history to have seven consecutive #1 singles, and she landed on a nascent MTV with a look of mostly-innocence that served as the Yin to Madonna’s Yang. If there were other American Idols before Whitney, she took it to a previously unknown level.

You just get the feeling, watching the energy in the crowd, that the ratings for this show will be through the roof compared to the past few years. People like me, who have long given up on popular music and awards shows, will feel drawn to this show because we will remember Whitney’s performance of “I Will Always Love You” (UPDATE: They just played a highlight from that performance, of course), and we will remember her country-affirming rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner at the 1991 Super Bowl.

And many of us will feel this nostalgia for shared musical moments, and we will know that our only best chance to experience that again is to sit in front of the TV and watch the Grammys.

Any comparisons between Whitney and Michael Jackson, or between Whitney and Amy Winehouse, are terribly flawed. She wasn’t the musical genius like Michael, and she wasn’t the insta-train wreck like Winehouse, whose producers and handlers couldn’t even slow her descent enough to get her through half a decade of success.

Perhaps the most depressing and inevitable comparison will be between Whitney and Tina Turner. We all want to believe that Bobby Brown corrupted Cinderella, that he fed her the poison fruit of alcohol and drugs and dragged her down the rabbit hole of addiction. We want that because we’re familiar with the tale.

We don’t want to believe the more likely but less dramatic tale, that Whitney was well on her way to -- or well past -- addiction before she ever met Bobby. We don’t want to believe that Whitney’s family life probably looked more like a scene from “Mommie Dearest” than a scene from “Good Times.”

It’s in those comparisons to Tina that the tragedy of Whitney seem most poignant. According to our limited and re-written and fabelized versions, Tina’s tale is one of overcoming a variety of adversities and adversaries. “Overcoming” being the key word.

Whitney, best I can tell, never managed to overcome a single one. Her first four albums averaged 10 million apiece just in America, but one could argue that without Dolly Parton, her descent into the forgettable began after only her second album. (I mean, Whitney’s part of The Bodyguard soundtrack, which was her biggest seller, is the equivalent of an EP. She’s only in six songs, and one of them is a cover of... “Jesus Loves Me.”)

Yet her importance and her impact on music cannot be doubted, and her ghost is there at the Grammys. I even felt it in the standing ovation for Taylor Swift (applause for the path Taylor might not be taking), for Dave Grohl’s sermon on what’s important in music that got cut off (applause for what Whitney might have lost), and especially for The Beach Boys and Glen Campbell (applause for surviving the business).

L.L. Cool J opened the 2012 Grammy Awards with a prayer. The dude who once needed an Around The Way Girl and drove lyrics that would make you call the cops made a blatant religious statement and asked a crowd of Californians to bow their heads. I mean, holy shit, y’all!

Unfortunately, it was still the Grammys. Nikki Minaj just miserably failed at trying to one-up Madonna and Lady GaGa and instead just looked stupid. Nothing about that performance made me think of Whitney.

Whitney, you could have been so much more. Which, considering the kind of success you had, is one helluva compliment and an even bigger and sadder tragedy.

But you got a prayer on the Grammys, and that’s something.

1 comment:

Daisy said...

Maybe it's a conspiracy to get higher ratings for the Grammy awards. Maybe Whit is living on the island with Mike,Elvis, Lady D and Jon Jon.