I had one of those ‘whoa’ moments today when I picked up my morning paper and read that Whitney Houston had died.
I can’t say that it saddened me, or even shocked me — poor Whitney had been on a terrible downward path for years now. But when a megastar passes, even one whose best days were far behind them, it still comes as a bit of a surprise.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Whitney Houston was one of the most influential singers of her generation. And, sad to say, that is not necessarily a good thing.
Houston has to take the blame for creating the genre of Overwrought Female Ballads, a style of music that dominated and polluted the airwaves for years. For it was Houston (or perhaps we should be blaming Clive Davis, the ubber-manager who discovered her) who was the first popular singer to belt out every song at maximum volume, stretching out every note to the point of torture. It was Houston’s colossal success that ushered in Maria Carey, Christina Aguilera, and approximately 27,492 American Idol contestants. Yes, Whitney Houston has a lot to answer for.
There are few songs that set my teeth on edge like I Will Always Love You, Houston’s monstrous, inescapable hit. With all due respect to Miss Houston, I HATE that song, or more accurately, I hate the Whitney Houston version. The song was written and originally performed by Dolly Parton, and her version (believe it or not) is subdued and quite touching. Houston amped it up and sucked the emotion out of it.
Houston was one of the most successful recording artists, male or female, in history. Yes, she sold millions upon millions of albums (my guess is that 97 per cent were sold to women, the remaining 3 per cent to gay guys or guys buying albums for their girlfriends), but her songs were the worst kind of pop pap. Compare the songs of Houston to those of Amy Winehouse, another gifted female singer who died this year. There was artistry and emotion in Winehouse’s songs; Houston’s work was all commercial artifice. Looking at the list of her huge hits — Saving All My Love For You, How Will I Know, The Greatest Love of All, Didn’t We Almost Have It All — is almost depressing. Why depressing? Because I know these songs! I don’t know why or how, but I know them all, and they are all pretty awful.
Am I being cruel? No, just honest.
I know a lot of people will disagree, and maybe question why anyone would write something negative about someone who isn’t even in the ground yet, but I’m not actually criticizing her. I take exception to her music, which was clearly the product of a cynical team of music writers and producers who cranked out middle-brow ballads that sold millions.
Her decline, from humble beginnings to megastar to object of derision on Saturday Night Live to early death, is a classic sad showbiz story. I feel badly for someone who had so much talent but squandered it all on dreadful music.