Friday, September 11, 2009

Jahnke's Record Collection: Whitney Houston

Usually with these blogs, I can jump right in and pinpoint when the album in question entered my life, what it meant to me at the time, how my relationship to the music changed over the years, and other such burning questions. But occasionally, we’ll have an album like this one: Whitney Houston’s 1985 self-titled debut. In a case like this, there’s really just one question to answer right off the bat.

Why the hell do you have a copy of this in the first place?

Please believe me when I say that in this instance, I really don’t remember. I can justify owning all sorts of weird crap. Say it was a present or I was interested in exploring a specific musical style at the time or whatever. This was not a gift. I bought it my own damn self in ’85 and, if I’m to be completely honest, this back cover probably had a lot to do with my purchase.

Hot-cha-cha! Hey, I was 16. Teenagers, both boys and girls, are allowed to make musical decisions based purely on hormones. How else can you explain the career of David Cassidy?

Anyway, I was obviously aware of the fact that this alluring package included a record album and Ms. Houston’s music was pretty good for its type. “Saving All My Love For You” was and is a perfectly enjoyable radio-friendly tune. “How Will I Know” is dopey fun. In fact, of all the big hits on the album, the only one that I never liked was probably the biggest. “The Greatest Love Of All” does absolutely nothing for me…never has and never will.

This is not a style of music that necessarily appeals to me but what I enjoyed about this album, and what has been all but forgotten thanks to Whitney’s very public downward spiral into crazytown, was her voice. Unlike so many other pop stars past and present, there has never been any question that Whitney Houston can sing. She has a remarkable voice and typically uses it to good effect. “You Give Good Love” shows her at her best. The song itself is kind of a forgettable mid-tempo ballad. But Houston sings the hell out of it. Significantly, she’s in control of her instrument. This doesn’t have the kind of show-offy vocal acrobatics she’d later have in hits like “I Will Always Love You”.

I never bought another Whitney Houston album, although she’d continue to churn out well-crafted, very listenable hits for the next several years. But they were all very similar to each other and I felt this one album was the one example of her work I really needed.

Whitney’s on the comeback trail now, older, wiser and cleaned up, but even with Oprah on her side, I doubt she’ll ever hit the levels of cross-pop-cultural phenomenon she once did. This is no slight against her. I don’t think Michael Jackson would have either had he needed to rely on new music. He had to die to become the biggest star in the world again and I think we can all agree that Whitney is better off than MJ in that respect. Rather than trying to reach out to all audiences, I’d like to see the new, mature Whitney Houston try to reconnect with her original fans by continuing to record the slick, slow ballads that defined her debut, maybe get back into movies eventually. Her career’s second act could mirror that of Barbra Streisand. She might not win a lot of new fans but, as Barbra will tell you, catering to your core fan base can be very, very lucrative.

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