Waiting to Exhale Original Soundtrack Album
Whitney Houston has been responsible for some of the most wretched musical moments of my life, but I've often wondered if I'm missing something. Among her millions of admirers, there are at least two I admire. One is a good friend of mine; the other is the late John Hammond Sr., a talent scout who was responsible for as much good music as anyone this century. (He "discovered," among others, Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen.) In a story told by music critic Dave Marsh, Hammond was lying in the hospital in his final days when a well-wisher cracked a joke about Houston. To everyone's astonishment Hammond bristled with rage, tried to lift himself, and kept repeating something like "She's really very good, you know!" With all due respect to his memory (and to my pal Laura), my negative reaction to Houston has always been similarly immediate and visceral.
Right after college I naively took a job in a sleazy Michigan Avenue law office that piped a lite-rock station through the overhead speakers. All summer long, as I helped with the busywork on an endless series of ambulance-chasing lawsuits, I had to listen to a heavy rotation of Houston's plodding tempos, inane melodies, and overblown singing; it was as bad as having to listen to REO Speedwagon and Journey in my high school lunchroom--maybe worse, because it went on all day. In a couple months I built up enough disgust with myself to quit the job and enough disgust with Houston to settle on my dismissive theory--namely, she's not a real pop star, but another empty icon of mass culture.
The distinction between popular art and mass culture was invented by leftist intellectuals a long time ago, and like so many academic inventions can be rather dubious and self-serving. In Houston's case, however, the shoe seems to fit. According to the intellectuals, a genuine pop artist expresses some bit of native culture in a broad, creative way that millions can understand. B.B. King, to take a random example, is a pure pop star for his universal expression of the blues. Mass culture, on the other hand, reaches much farther than straight pop culture. As such, it expresses very little specific culture of any sort; if anything, this top-down creation of late capitalism has something to hide. Behind its mask of generic concepts like fun and excitement, mass culture has nothing more to sell than its own hypnotic might--in Nietzsche's famous catchphrase it's called the "will to power." Disney World, to take a not-so-random example, is mass culture to a T. It draws busloads of childless adults not because they love Mickey and Goofy, but because the setting allows them to submit safely to an awesome Orwellian experience in power and control. Likewise, Houston isn't about being black or female or an R & B singer, and her songs aren't about nonsense like the "Greatest Love of All"; instead, she's just about the blunt, inescapable power of her voice--its virtuosity, its volume, its sheer intensity. Defeating everything in its path, it demands your attention, your respect, your hard-earned cash.
For a long time the trajectory of Houston's career seemed to confirm this theory. Starting with a bang in 1984 with the biggest-selling debut album of all time, she steadfastly worked to make herself the perfect commodity for consumers everywhere. By 1992 she had broken a major barrier by going multimedia with The Bodyguard, a number-one film and sound track that actually succeeded in erasing her race: she abandoned all traces of R & B with the sound track's multiplatinum single of Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You," and her screen romance with costar Kevin Costner was notable only because the issue of interracial love wasn't brought up once ("Gee, honey, I never noticed"). Step by step she was becoming an empty vessel for entertainment cliches empowered by nothing more than her star stature, her gorgeous features, and her swollen alveoli.
Lungwise, that naturally brings me to Waiting to Exhale, a megaproject that is both the fulfillment of her star trajectory and its surprising negation--the sudden explosion of a high-flying firework. The blockbuster novel by Terry McMillan opens with the main character listening to Whitney Houston, a character who in turn is played by Whitney Houston in the blockbuster film. The blockbuster album continues this house of mirrors with three prominent tracks sung by you know who. But if the scale of this Whitney-fest is as big as ever, the focus isn't. I never got through the book (my partner is sorry she bothered) and I missed the movie (even blockbusters close too soon), but the sound track is a minor miracle. Unlike most movie tie-ins, which just license prereleased songs, this one was specifically designed to honor the theme of black women and their love lives with new material performed by some major black female artists, a roster that ranges from hot newcomers like Brandy and Mary J. Blige to godmothers like Patti LaBelle and Houston's aunt Aretha. If nothing else, it places Houston in a context that finally proves Hammond was right--she really is very good, you know.
Some might prefer to heap that praise on Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, the producer/songwriter who made the context signify. Producing the whole project and writing every track but one (Chaka Khan's overembellished version of "My Funny Valentine"), Babyface consistently reinvigorates the songs' soft R & B formulas by tailoring them to the performers' personal strengths, whether they be Aretha Franklin's gospel-powered ballad "It Hurts Like Hell" or TLC's sultry come-on "This Is How It Works." For Houston, he did even more, creating two opening cuts that restrain her usual histrionics and display her power with shivers of tension in the use of head voice, breath control, and blue-note scats. As a result she has never sounded so thoughtful, so fluid, so black. Unlike everything she's done before now, "Exhale (Shoop Shoop)" and "Why Does It Hurt So Bad" give her some semblance of specific identity and place her vocal gifts in a tradition that not every consumer is going to instantly relate to. They're probably the two most subtle numbers she has ever recorded; they're also the two boldest. In the end that means the highest honors belong to Houston: the sound track gives her the past she never had, makes her something closer to the popular artist that Hammond defended on his sickbed. Since the notion of an all-female album was Houston's to begin with, you might even call it "She Stoops to Concept." As one song quietly spills into the next, and the stories of heartbreak and seduction, endurance and faith continue to mount, you realize that she proudly, explicitly, and movingly has given a tradition of gentle black pop its due. It doesn't mean I'll ever willingly listen to her early material again, but I'll gladly keep an ear open for what comes next.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Neal Preston.