Watching this poor-quality bootleg, it isn’t apparent whether Whitney could hear the buffoon; indeed, his yelling elicits no reaction at all from anyone. Surely, at least the people around him could hear the heckling – didn’t they mind? They themselves weren’t shouting directives at the stage – critically or otherwise, so why didn’t anyone say anything to this bozo? Even a simple “Shhhh.” Maybe they thought he was right.
When I was eight years old, I was mesmerized by the stories she told in such evocative classics as “You Give Good Love,” “All At Once,” “How Will I Know,” “Saving All My Love for You” and “The Greatest Love of All.” Speaking of love, I was also really enamored with such contemporaneous hits as Madonna’s “Material Girl” and Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” but – not for nothing – those songs sounded like productions, like products crafted to achieve a certain effect.
Riding in the backseat of my mother’s station wagon, I felt like Whitney was singing just to me.
A couple of years later, I remember “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” as the new Whitney hit played and replayed at a friend’s backyard dance party. The song and that sophomore album in general had a more elaborate pop sound and the distinction between Whitney and other big singers of the time withered.
As she graduated from the crown princess ingénue and her songs began to tackle more adult topics, she seemed less emotionally invested and her focus seemed to narrow to the music itself as opposed to the story.
And the years that followed saw Whitney release song after song where her voice soared and riffed and ran as her star exploded in crescendo after platinum crescendo. In my teen years, I had basically abandoned mainstream music for an exclusive pursuit of musical theatre and, like other pop cultural touchstones such as “Friends” and “Seinfeld”, I only discovered and fell in love with the Whitney of “I’m Your Baby Tonight” and “I Will Always Love You” and “My Love Is Your Love” in retrospect after the fact. Coming back to Whitney later in life, from a more singer and voice-focused perspective, I was even more impressed with her world class vocals, certainly as rangy and strong as the best of Patti LuPone and Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland, or arguably, better – even if it began to seem as if her songs were about nothing other than her singing them. Some voices are so powerful, so beautiful, such divine channels, that it’s enough. And if the public demands nothing more than that she sing loud, it isn’t surprising that became her only intention.
However, just as I was falling for Whitney all over again, she was falling from grace. No one who saw even the digitally improved version of Whitney as Skeletor singing “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” at the Michael Jackson 30th Anniversary in 2001, could ever forget that horrifying image, or the busted voice she had left to offer. Her infamous 2002 interview with Diane Sawyer displayed a drug addict in denial, hissing empty catch-phrases, non-sequiturs and lies. And there was the reality show, Life with Bobby Brown, where Whitney was a caricature of even Debra Wilson’s hilarious Mad TV caricature.
Then, for a few years, Whitney all but disappeared, and it looked like she actually might, until news circulated of her divorce and rehab and a comeback. Which way would it go? Could Whitney ever again be the soulful songbird of the 80s? Would she return to the spotlight as the haughty diva of the mid and late 90s closing her eyes and contorting her body to egotistically retch out the money notes we demanded with little attention to anything else?
I Look To You, the album Whitney finally released on August 31, 2009, showcases a new Whitney altogether. The voice is undeniably diminished – like late period Liza Minnelli, we no longer root for the big high notes, but are merely hopeful for, every so often, a strong, extended note on any pitch.
But unlike late Liza, Whitney doesn’t come across full of shit. Her Oprah Winfrey interview this week, despite its spin and promotional acumen and Jesus references, revealed a candid survivor, able to frankly discuss a variety of personal topics with compelling wisdom and humor.
The Whitney who sang her new album’s plaintive “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength” was quiet, less vocally commanding even than the version on record, but expressive and determined.
Even in comparison with her early work, this Whitney has a story to tell in song, a message for all of us from the bottom of her heart. The songs on the new CD are literally a mixed bag, something for everyone perhaps, between the pandering to the youth market, the edgier experimentation with new sounds and collaborators, the sentimental easy-listening and the attempts at classic Whitney Houston anthems.
It remains to be seen whether I Look To You will hold its place in the charts over the coming months, re-establishing Whitney as a force to be reckoned with, or merely fade away with the catharsis of her comeback, leaving Whitney as just another hoarse-voiced has-been. The real question in my mind, though, is whether Whitney will continue with this new-again emotion in her singing, this deeper honesty and conviction. I will be listening.