I know I have been inactive in blogging for almost a couple of months now. Various commitments hindered me from posting as much as I would’ve wanted, and while the major international pageants are still several months away, I would focus on few of my other primary passions–music and music-oriented reality competitions.
I was initially planning to post a blog about another musical act that had recently caught my fancy, but at 355 pm PT on 11 February 2012, a hundred-million-record-selling superstar suddenly and unexpectedly passed away at a Beverly Hilton hotel room–Whitney Houston. Just like Michael Jackson’s passing in June 2009, the whole world gasped in shock at the news that this tragic news, and her millions of fans are mourning the loss of a legend.
Am I one of her fans? Actually, not really. I do admire her vocal prowess at her prime, and yes, she left an indelible impact–it is indeed true she created the template that other vocally endowed superstars and would-be-divas would emulate, from Mariah Carey and Celine Dion to Jennifer Hudson and Leona Lewis to all those hopefuls auditioning in various singing competitions like American Idol, the Voice, X Factor, and so on, to the point that you can gauge a person’s vocal capability based on the way they can sing a Whitney song. Masses passionately adore her ballads but ironically, I find most of those slickly produced ballads the masses love too mawkishly sentimental that they often leave me cold instead of getting the desired impact.
Like the way I felt towards Michael Jackson in his latter years, with all those pedophilia allegations and overall weirdness, I felt the last decade of Whitney’s life was a tale of a talent squandered with those repeated bouts in rehab due to alcohol and drug addiction and overall erratic and combative behavior. I didn’t buy the 2009 “comeback” totally, and her disastrous stints in Australia only confirmed she had long ways to go to return back to her prime, if ever.
It’s easy for many to divide her career arc into two as pre-Bobby Brown and post-Bobby Brown, and blame her ex-husband for her eventual decline. But I have a feeling that we shouldn’t blame Bobby for her downfall–she brought it mostly to herself. This was especially evident with her notoriously combative and defensive (and profanity-laden) 1993 Rolling Stone interview, the infamous Diane Sawyer interview with her now trademark “Crack is wack” remark, and her unfortunate foray into reality TV that starred her husband, “Being Bobby Brown” (I was particularly repulsed by her “black love” remark when she referred to Bobby helping her, um, relieve herself).
Still, I have no intention to speak ill of the dead, only that as much as we celebrate her legendary achievements we should have to take the above into account. Anyway, I will honor and celebrate what this lady has achieved by citing my Top Seven all-time favorite Whitney Houston recordings:
7. “All the Man that I Need” (1990). This ballad has a dramatic grandiosity that gets to me as years wore on, and I had mentioned earlier in this blog that I’m not that into her slickly produced and orchestrated ballads. This is a rare exception…
6. “Queen of the Night” (1993). I don’t like the original New Jack Swing-style mix that sounds especially dated these days, but the CJ Mackintosh remix provided the perfect setting for Whitney’s fierce, diva-licious vocals. And this remix version stood the test of time better, in my opinion…
5. “Exhale (Shoop Shoop)” (1995) In my opinion, she seems to know how to better get to the heart of a song much better during her mid-1990s movie mode, that you do create better impact by singing from your heart instead of showcasing your vocal virtuosity every time. Because of that, I find her subdued reading of this ballad almost sublime.
4. “Step By Step” (1997) As an album, I actually found the “Preacher’s Wife” soundtrack as her best collection in an artistic sense. Remaking this Annie Lennox B-side is for me the highlight of that collection, making you groove on your feet as the inspirational lyrics and the church-tinged vocals make your spirit soar up higher and higher. To reference Madonna’s classic “Like A Prayer”, this song “takes (me) there.” It deserved better than a mere Top 20 chart showing!
3. “How Will I Know” (1986) It’s such a refreshingly light confection but with those trademark powerhouse vocals that I adore. This is Whitney at her most engaging and likeable. My favorite of the 1980s Whitney tracks. I obsessively sketched her hairstyle and dress she sported in her official video back in 1986. People even admired her virtuosity even more when someone posted a vocals-only version on YouTube.
2. “I Will Always Love You” (1992) Yes, this is now the song that we most identify with her, even if she’s not the original singer and there were a whole lot of cover versions before her. It’s undeniably the favorite of millions. This, considering an a capella-only intro that was considered not radio-friendly. I also love this song and her performance of it–for the most part of that number. The way Dolly Parton had written it back in 1973-74, it’s a gentle message of a parting of ways between lovers (though she was inspired by the parting of her professional partnership with Porter Waggoner at the time). For most of the song, she stayed faithful to that message and her a capella intro and the soft way she comes in as the instrumentation began was the most soul-stirring performance I have heard of her.
But then came the much heralded vocal climax, which I call the “INDAAAAAYYYYYYY!!!” portion–imagine you’re in an intimate dinner and your lover is sweetly and gently telling you that you would need to break up and part ways, and all of a sudden she grabs you by the collar and decides to beat you up. That’s the effect the climax had on me, even though I was very much impressed by it, and on hindsight it felt like she’s contradicting the message Dolly Parton intended. Well, she went back on gentle mode as she ended the song, but still, the pummeling has been done. Jennifer Hudson’s Grammy tribute, I felt, was the best illustration on how a big voice should tackle this song and preserve the song’s message. I think I would’ve placed this song as my all-time favorite Whitney song if it weren’t for my divided feelings about the climax.
Jennifer Hudson’s Grammy tribute:
1. “It’s Not All Right, But It’s Okay” (1999) I think I love this song the most because of the message, not necessarily because of Whitney’s vocal chops, though her sassy and diva-tastic delivery brought the point all the way home and I appreciate the unusual still-cutting-edge percussion on this track. This is the song that is embedded in my system when I want to get a Whitney fix (which is rare). This is why this is my favorite Whitney song amongst all of her massive hits.
Despite the troubles she had endured, I have to give her much respect for how her gifts have inspired millions. Despite my misgivings, I do believe she is now in heaven singing in with a choir of angels.