Whitney, We Hardly Knew You

Whitney Houston performs onstage at the 2009 American Music Awards at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on November 22, 2009 | Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Whitney Houston performs onstage at the 2009 American Music Awards at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on November 22, 2009 | Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

When I was in college in the very early '80s, the music of my generation had more or less passed. The talking-drum brand of R&B that spoke directly to black people, delivering messages that ranged from "keep your head to the sky" to "give the people what they want," had waned through five years of disco and was nearly dead by the end of the '70s (Those messages actually did persist through some disco, but were less aggressive and more subtle, i.e., 'Ain't No Stopping Us Now' in acknowledgement of the fact that black music was shifting from being primarily declarations of racial pride and affirmation to being platforms of dance for all.)

It was also the dawn of a new conservative political era that called for the end of racial specificity, musical and otherwise. Into this vacuum stepped Whitney Houston. She was a new kind of artist for the times: rooted in a soaring gospel style and black for sure, but tightly contained within formula ballads and mid-tempo dance songs that didn't allow for a hair out of place.

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Whitney had plenty of danger in her -- that big voice was clear and sharp-edged as a razor, even when she was belting out the national anthem with what seemed to be patriotic fervor. But it was a voice that ultimately had nowhere to go, nobody to really speak to except the amorphous crossover audience that Clive Davis saw as her fan base and that started ruling black pop singers in the '80s with an iron fist. In a tragic way, Whitney's voice and image became separated from Whitney herself, something she hinted at over the years when she complained to people like Diane Sawyer that the satin gowns and above-it-all diva persona were really not her.

Who was she, then? We never really knew. Unlike white performers whose music often expresses their lives, doubts and points of view, Whitney and other black performers who followed were mined strictly for their vocal talent and style, not for themselves. When Whitney fell into drug use and decline, the contrast between that and the sophisticated Whitney that the public "knew" generated little sympathy but plenty of lurid tabloid fodder; when Amy Winehouse did the same and eventually died, everybody recognized it as a tragic part of the artist's life and interior struggles. Amy Winehouse had larger meaning, while Whitney is being memorialized but not remembered. That Winehouse modeled her singing on traditional soul music makes the difference between her and Whitney that much more ironic.

A recent L.A. Times piece compared the heightened posthumous interest in Whitney Houston with what happened after Michael Jackson died. I get that, but these two black hit-makers from the '80s were hardly the same. MJ was popular but singular, a man who did put himself and his views into his music, or tried to. Too, he was an innovator as well as a performer, while Whitney was only the latter. Then again, Michael was also trapped in the hall of mirrors that is black image; the grotesque modifications to his face over the years seemed to me an obvious attempt to refute that image, turn it on its head. He only succeeded in cutting himself off from himself and from much of the public, even the public that adored him . Whitney was, in pop-music parlance, much more "accessible" that way. But in the end she, too, remained out of reach.

Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. Read all her posts here.

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