BY CLINTON DYBING
I’m confident that many households in Sydney have a really big bright circle around February 24 and are counting the days until they see Whitney Elizabeth Houston.
As my Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras guide tells me, she’ll be “showcasing why she remains a singular force in music today and one of the world’s most beloved pop icons”. You’d be hard-pressed to think of a better way to phrase it. And it’s mainly due to the Voice — just ask anyone who’s there that night.
Or you could ask me. In October 1988, I attended my first-ever concert. It started with an empty stage and the first few bars of Didn’t We Almost Have It All.
The Voice, literally, preceded her. It warrants a capital V — I’d no idea that someone singing live could sound so strong.
The good thing about being 16 and impressionable is that seeing your first diva stays with you. One of the bad things is not being able to comprehend the impact Houston had at that time, especially in the US.
Thanks to a couple of albums called Off The Wall and Thriller, Michael Jackson soared into the popularity stratosphere, and fans wanted more of the pop/dance/soul sound. Simultaneously, social groups criticised MTV for presenting few African American performers.
Much of the success of artists like Lionel Richie and Prince can be attributed to these factors. Houston, however, would eclipse their success. When her record sales went through the roof, she wasn’t only the first woman to achieve such success — she was the first black woman.
However, in the late ’80s, after two hit albums, she fell victim to a small backlash: black audiences thought she had sold out by eschewing her race and sounding ‘too white’. At the 1989 Soul Train Awards, she was reportedly jeered while on stage. In Essence magazine of December 1990, she countered this argument.
“Black? That bothers me… I don’t know how to sing black, and I don’t know how to sing white, either. I know how to sing.”
Considering Houston’s lineage, her ability to sing is no surprise. Her cousin is Dionne Warwick, her godmother Aretha Franklin, and her mother, Cissy Houston, is a soul singer in her own right. While in her teens, Whitney performed backing vocals, most notably on Chaka Khan’s I’m Every Woman, which she would eventually do a cover version of in 1992.
At the age of 14, she was offered a recording contract of her own, which her mother vetoed. It wasn’t until she was 21 that her first, self-titled album was released. Rolling Stone reported she had “one of the most exciting new voices in years”. Songs like You Give Good Love and How Will I Know became hits, although her biggest hit was Greatest Love Of All.
When I Look To You was released last year, it entered the charts at number one and it proved to be her best-ever opening week. Of the album, All Music said, “She remains a forceful, tangible presence… She’s a pro — she sells these subdued, glitzy productions, she makes boring songs sound interesting.”
The opinion that Houston’s voice is so good that it transcends some rather mediocre material is not an uncommon one. The New York Times’ Stephen Holden said her debut album was “an impressive, [though] musically conservative showcase for an exceptional vocal talent.” Even then, no one ever debated that she sure sells whatever she’s singing.
As she once said, “God gave me a voice to sing with, and when you have that, what other gimmick is there?”
Though Houston’s refuting reports that this is her ‘comeback’ (since she never really left), she’s gone into a media hyper-drive. She’s appeared on French, German and British television, and she kicked off Oprah’s 24th season with a two-part interview — her first in seven years. If nothing else, it’s the nature of her talent, not to mention the outlasting strength of it, and her strong sense of individualism that ensures her ‘diva’ status.
In Newsweek, Alan Cumming wrote that gay audiences “have an affinity [for] people, like them, who have faced adversity… This could be drugs; it could be a propensity for making the wrong choices in men…” He may have been speaking specifically of Houston, especially after a tricky few years. After marriage to Bobby Brown, a run-in with some airport security guards, and an infamous crack about… well, crack, she’s earned her stripes in the adversity stakes.
And now that the Perth leg of the tour has been cancelled, we find that Houston is free over the first weekend of March. At the time of writing, nothing’s been mentioned about her being in Sydney that weekend — I’m sure I’m not the only one to wonder.
I may be wrong, but I don’t think she and George Michael have ever performed their duet, If I Told You That, live. Hmm. Just thinking out loud.
info: Whitney Houston plays Acer Arena, Wednesday, February 24, 7.45pm. Book through Ticketek.