Saturday, February 18, 2012

Whitney's Homegoing

Whitney Houston is dead.
She's gone.

I sat there processing this information. The informant didn't say what were the causes but he didn't have to; I knew. Everyone in that small room knew as we had her the jokes about her insane drug-induced behavior. And that in it of itself was shocking. No one asked how or why she died. Whether it was prescription or illegal or alcohol we all knew that some insidious substance was involved.

I'm looking at Whitney Houston's Homegoming. It's only been a week since I heard those words and it still shocks me. I reject the backlash at expressing sorrow over celebrity death. My continued stunned grief wasn't because she was famous. When Judy Garland died there was a general sadness but a profound sense of loss and sorrow for a select group and not just for her drug abuse or her voice. For the spirit she represented. And that grief was able to trigger Stonewall and social change. Whitney represents the same sense of sorrow for a distinct group that is much more than a lost singer. She represents something much more than a voice that is now the standard for female pop singers. For Blacks, for gay Blacks, and churchgoers she was their Judy Garland.

There are people who seem to think that public grief in America is a performance piece and that we have moved beyond wailing chorus of widows from ancient times. But in fact we are in it. In our texting and post-modern times we are growing closer to our instinct and our past. The technology that separates us causes us to seek out grief that exists at a primal level. If someone doesn't understand a subculture's deep sense of loss at one of their own, that is fine. You are not apart of it. But it doesn't discount that people are having true sorrow. I'm sure when Elvis died on the toilet from excessive abuse, there was the same subculture sense of sorrow. The difference is that the subculture that claims Elvis and Judy Garland is assumed to be important and the one Whitney represents is typically marginalized and so their grief is treated in the same manner.

My grief was earned and real. I had grown to love and appreciate the troubled and divine Miss Houston. Toward the end of her life the voice was gone. The squeaky-clean image was gone. The beauty was quickly fading behind drunken spectacles and cigarettes. And as she went down each step toward further chaos and humiliation I would mutter under my breath 'just love you. We don't care about the voice any more or the beauty or the hit movies. Just find something worth saving in you.' I imagined it must have been very difficult for Houston see her own voice and image -the model of pop music female perfection- crack and wither into hoarse, airy croaks that had to be airbrushed with slick production experts.

The fact that she kept living in public made it all the more painful. At least Billie Holiday didn't have to deal with twitter and TMZ. Heroin destroyed Lady Day in a few years and with privacy. We were spared watching Janis Joplin alcoholic decline for 15 years.Whitney had reality TV shows, comedic sketches mocking her, and several feature spreads in tabloids listing her failures, her alleged drug dens, pictures of her looking bedraggled and with a junkie smile plastered across her face while she made a late-night runs to gas stations for junk food. It was like watching one of my aunts soiling her dress and slurring her words while school children giggle and pictures were snapped. It hurt my feelings.

There were 3 different periods of Whitney: the 80s overwrought Whitney, the 90s stripped down Whitney, and the post-millenium Whitney of scandal and tragedy. 

As a child of the 1980s, Whitney Houston's voice haunted me. Through no fault of her, she was everywhere. At every school talent show, at every recital, at every procession. Flag Day at Highland Oaks Elementary School involved an outdoor event in front of the main office's flag pole. All the students from all the grades would gather in the parking lot and stand for over 2 hours as we celebrated flags. The American flag, the state flag, historical flags, flags of different shapes and colors passed before my glazed eyes. Strips of colored cloth were raised and lowered on various poles, paraded around, folded and must never touch the ground. No one ever explained why these rectangular pieces of cloth couldn't touch the ground. Would they spontaneously combust, would the flag police arrest us, was it a federal crime? These are the many questions that run through a young child's mind as they're squatting on scalding hot black asphalt while your peers are dressed like Hitler Youth. 

Flag officers and flag cheerleaders would march around in geometric shapes to the pounding of a drum as we sweated under the Florida sun. For one afternoon, this upper-middle class public school became like a military academy and we were the unwilling and flabby cadets. Speeches were given at the microphone.

Principal Virginia Boone was a woman to be feared. Built like a linebacker and with the voice of a hard-drinking and chain-smoking Civil War general, she presided over Flag Day with an iron fist. If there was anyone less scary or threatening at the helm, we probably would wander off halfway through the ceremony like stray cats. 

Our teachers would remind us repeatedly 'don't embarrass me out there' with a whispered fierce tone that was a warning of some horrific medieval punishment involving flayed skin. For most of the year we could yell, scream, have food fights in the cafeteria but if we messed up on Flag Day then there would be hell to pay. Perhaps an eternity spent as a human shawl or some sort of local and obscure flag warning future generations to turn back from Flag Day.

Principal Boone would relish the opportunity to call out teacher and student alike over the microphone from her Flag Day parade stage. It didn't matter what our ages were, because on Flag Day we were all her children; her mentally-handicapped idiot bastard children. Boone would berate and humiliate staff with unruly students. The younger, fresh-out-of-college teachers would look on in horror as Principal Boone's hoarse Southern drawl would claw at our skin. The more gentler teachers would burst into tears at being dressed down in front of hundreds. The children wouldn't even use the teacher's emotional breakdown against them. We would all bow our heads in shame at our failings. 

As a reward for our terrified silence, we would get treated to a medley of songs. Principal Boone really thought this was a great reward for the kids. We would get to hear live music as our sneakers melted into the skillet-hot asphalt. From her comfortable and shaded seat she couldn't understand how ungrateful and lazy her minions could be while the music played. One year, a girl standing next to me burst into tears. She was in so much discomfort that she couldn't take it any more. Our teacher came up to her patter her on the back. I thought it was a moment of camraderie until I realized the teacher was smothering the child's cries in her shoulder.

We would count down the minutes of these ceremonies, awaiting our return to air conditioned rooms and seats. "Wind Beneath My Wings" and "I Believe The Children Are Our Future" were stored in the deep recesses of our minds. Those songs were filed under ironic torture music.

In the 1980s Whitney's music became a syrupy gruel dispensed at public events that was bereft of individuality. The only thing needed was an ability hit high notes with increasingly difficult runs and backflips. I didn't like this especially knowing she came from a gospel background, the very epitome of soul and spirit. It seems as if slick producers stole the songs of slaves and stripped them over their true pain. Mainstream music just needed the antics, not the story that caused it.

Whitney willingly played a part in this music. Her voice, 'the voice,' surpassed her background and heritage. There have been others who came before her, such as Michael Jackson, Prince, and Aretha Franklin. But you can't imitate those stars without it becoming a poor mimicry. When you do the moonwalk or sing in the Prince-like falsetto, people know what you're doing. When people sing like 'the voice' all they do is take it over like a virus in a host body. The voice became something of a puppet act for young kids and teenagers. Unknowingly, she played a part in this as 'the voice' became another stolen piece of property in American culture.

Her sound lended itself to being taken over by others. Artistic form is often set by weaknesses as much as strengths. The artist's limitations and flaws define the  container in which they operate. When there is no limitations or flaw then very often there is no artistic form either. There is only indominable talent and ambition. The audience is left with a talent that is always emerging and escaping but never gelling into anything of perceivable substance.

It's sacrilegious and I know I might have my Black card revoked for saying this but 1980s Whitney Houston felt like that giant perfect "Star Search" ambition. Incapable of vocal flaw and therefore unable to define her very soul, she barreled through Hallmark cards posing as songs. She would come on the radio and very often kids would erupt in mimicry, singing the runs and doing vocal acrobatics. If no one was around I would very politely turn the radio down, afraid that by turning it off completely I might be committing some federal crime against patriotism. As a compromise I would edge the volume lower and listen to her as if from a distance. At a low volume, Whitney's voice has a mystery to it that is often lacking in her big hits. She's whispering from another planet of 'femmebot' singers.

There were rising den of opposing voices to Whitney. She was thought of as 'phony' and 'too white.' In that, and only that, I felt a kinship with 1980s Whitney. She wasn't sufficiently ethnic and was boo'ed at Black awards shows for a period of time. Beyonce has received the same criticism and has been shouted down by Black audiences at the height of her fame. 

My shift toward Whitney happened while watching the Super Bowl and her rendition of the "Star Spangled Banner." It was 1991 and she had been out of my ear for a few years. America was in the middle of a patriotic revival with the first Iraq War over oil. I was obsessed with military equipment and the Panama War had proven underwhelming. Iraq, which touted one of the largest armies in the world, gave hope for an aerial firework display the American media had been deprived of in arresting Manuel Noriega. The patriotism was highly manufactured and finely crafted by the finest minds of propaganda. Whitney's voice was the very embodiment of Americana, an un-ironic blend of consumer merchandising and bland colorless love. A witless force of ambition pumped up on steroids. The voice was a merchandising virus, and like a virus it had only 3 purposes: to duplicate, to infiltrate, and to spread.

When they announced Whitney's name, I cringed and then prepared myself for the waves of diarrhetic singing. But this was a new phase of Whitney's career. She was a woman and a year away from marrying Bobby Brown and having a child. She was partying hard but the girlish antics and preening were gone. She was wearing a white track suit with red and white trimmings and her hair was held in a simple ivory-colored sweatband. She was here to work. She launched into an athletic and robust rendition of America's national anthem that was stunning and short. Some of the key notes were underplayed. She still had an enormous voice, but she was owning it, instead of parading it. There was no need for the backflips. 

This moment in pop culture history felt like the official start of the 90s Whitney. The songs were stripped, more soulful, and her notes were darker to fit the change in her voice and personality. She could still hit the notes and was a marketing genius as she began incorporating movies into her career trajectory. But this new Whitney was a full-grown woman whose songs about love felt more real. The writing was still fairly bland, but the delivery transformed the songs beyond mere ambition.

She released "All The Man That I Need" confirmed this fresh perspective on a grown 1990s Whitney. We were entering the era of grunge and gangsta rap. The public demanded more than karaoke. Feeling was needed. Neo-soul began to peak its head out before blossoming in the middle of the decade. We were a nation and a world in search of something ancient and darker. Bubble gum would not do. The market adjusted and gave us 'bad boy' bands dressed in leather like Jodeci and New Kids on the Block, while Janet Jackson's "Rhythm Nation" portrayed a factory dystopia that was remarkably similar to Madonna's Ayn Rand send-up in "Express Yourself."

"The Bodyguard" was her ultimate hit but many of the songs weren't so upbeat. "Queen of the Night" was not the image of squeaky clean girl. It was a partying midnight siren, still boastful and ambition but tinged with a foreshadowing doom. The partying would catch up to her. At first this doom played itself out in the music. "I Will Always Love You," is a clear-eyed retrospective of a relationship and love that is over. It's easy to forget this, since it's one of the biggest love anthems of all time but it's not about finding or discovering. The song that Dolly Pardon originally sung as a country anthem was about defeated woman.

The decade ended with "My Love Is Your Love," with Whitney on album cover in dark black dress, black stockings and neon blonde hair. The one sign of color -the hair- was a nod to pop music and the 1980s were she came from. But the rest of picture was of a woman moving into dark territory with a smile. The album garnered some of the best reviews of her career as her voice was now lower and distinctive. There would not be a boom of talent shows contestants emulating this Whitney. She was still covered and imitated, but it wasn't all-pervasive because it wasn't aimed at the 12-year-old girl market. "It's Not Right But It's Okay" was delivered in a stabbing staccato of a woman talking through all the incidents of betrayal. When I heard the song for the fist time on the radio, I couldn't believe it. Whitney without the excessive runs. She was delivering a promise long overdue. She was growling from her gut.

In her last decade, Whitney was mostly adrift. The post-millennium period marked a decade of bizarre interviews, fizzled album sales, and tabloid notoriety. "Being Bobby Brown" was supposed to be a reality TV show about Bobby Brown and the bad boy trying to make a comeback. But it was obvious that people weren't tuning in to see Bobby. They wanted to see Whitney and how she interacted with her troubled husband. As Bobby struggled in the studio, the editors would frequently cut to Whitney poolside in a haze, or Whitney smoking a cigarette and cutting up with friends. This was a diva in exile, still grand but largely disconnected from what made her famous. The infamous last episode of "Being Bobby" featured pop icon smoking and roaming around her mansion cussing her husband like an R&B Norma Desmond.

After the show's first year she realized the damage that she had done to her image. It was one of the biggest hits on TV to not have a second season. Despite Bobby Brown and Bravo pleading, Whitney would not renew another season for people to use against her. She would not sign off on a DVD version that people desperately wanted. If she was going to be a mess, she was going to do so in private.

Whitney never got this privacy because we don't allow it of our celebrities. Once you reach a certain level of fame, you are tracked. Friends and associates whisper to the press, circulate the rumors and failings. The gossip generates billions of dollars and runs an entire industry. Whitney was now a part of this and she spent the last years of her life attempting to re-enter the arena of a superstar artist.

The day before her death, I was reading online about Whitney being considered as a judge for X-Factor. I thought it would have been a great idea. Being in front of the camera as a judge would give her the attention she craved, spark her next comeback, and may cause her to clean up her act. She would be mentoring young singers and, perhaps, she would take it seriously. The comments below this report was the usual round of jokes about Whitney being a crack addict and not taking a job unless her dress room floor was covered in cocaine so every time she fell she could pick herself up. The jokes didn't make me mad nor did I laugh. I just hoped these comments would be proven wrong.

A few hours before the Whitney's death reached my ears, I was online watching youtube videos. I surfed through the endless cover bands and current list of pop singers. They all sound like the children of Whitney.

Now it's a week later and I'm watching the Whitney Houston Homecoming broadcast live on CNN. Clive Davis spoke just now and the eulogy and he sprinkled his comments with memories of music videos and resume accomplishments. Davis ended his Whitney commercial with an odd blend of spirituality and marketing. She was getting ready for a comeback and it was going to be August. You know in this statement that Whitney's last movie 'Sparkle" will be released around August and the music industry will be preparing for a Whitney wave during the summer lull. Davis said he was going to hold Whitney to her August comeback promise. He's going to hold her voice and her music, working it and churning it out endlessly. The speech came across as verging on a slave master eulogizing a slave as working in heaven because, after all, that is a master's idea of a slave heaven: a place where they can work in heaven's cotton fields eternally. According to Mr Davis, Whitney will be held to her contract obligations in heaven and will be expected to continue singing. It reminds me of Michael Jackson's death where the controlling corporate interests released many statements promising that they will continue their fruitful relationship with Michael, even in death! This is their business idea of heaven: indentured service in perpetuity toward the profit margin.

I hope she finds rest. My idea of heaven isn't Whitney singing forever. I would like to see her again, smiling and free. She wouldn't be on stage in front of a crowd. She would probably be humming softly to herself. Performing for no one. She would be singing softly the music of her heart. This music isn't produced and doesn't have verses or a chorus. This music doesn't even have words. It is just a feeling, like a child humming while at play.  And I hope I could eavesdrop in on this private moment and, in turn, get some comfort.

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