radio vulture

Whitney Houston and the Burden of Perfection

Whitney Houston.

Whitney Houston was always supposed to be perfect, and it’s miraculous how far she got in her career without much letting on to the contrary. First, she was the great talent sent forth by Clive Davis to tackle the R&B market, singing songs written the way stages are built — as a scaffold to lift her voice a few feet up above the crowd so people can marvel at it. (The voice was grand enough that getting people to marvel was more or less child’s play.) Then came the dance numbers, constructed to launch Houston across the lingering segregation of the eighties charts and into the world of pop: “How Will I Know,” “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me),” videos full of neon girlishness and bouncy bleached hair. Parts of her audience worried that she was impersonating one of the white teenyboppers who toured the plazas of malls, and hated the thought. But these tracks still had a joyous kick of soul to them — listen to the churchy mass of backing vocals on “How Will I Know” — that’s irresistibly buoyant; they’re some of the more obviously lovable things in Houston’s catalogue. She delivered most of this material, ballads and dance-pop and uptempo soul, with exactly the kind of perfect, grinning, flawless, wholesome dignity required for a black woman to cross over to white audiences in the eighties. She was “classy,” she was “bouncy,” she was whatever was needed.

Then there was the stuff that was even more “perfect,” those straight-spined adult-contemporary ballads that would lumber up and down the charts for what felt like years at a time, selling and selling and selling some more: “The Greatest Love of All,” “One Moment in Time,” and of course “I Will Always Love You.” Americans currently in their thirties and older have, willingly or not, memorized every last nuance, texture, flutter, and run of Houston’s vocals on these songs. (Compared to “The Greatest Love of All,” the back of my hand is a mystery to me.) These were the songs on which Houston became “indomitable” — a trim star, alternately regal and businesslike, whose voice, songs, and sudden pleased-with-herself grin always seemed to be about strength and resilience and self-reliance. (The grin was a church grin, the one that comes across like some secret between the grinner and the lord.) Her voice didn’t lack personality; it was pure, powerful, clear, and acrobatic, but it was human as well, and there was a feeling of struggle in it. But it was the struggle of a mountain climber — mostly about achievement, and will, and overcoming hardship, and striving to be ever more perfect and courageous and dignified. The three hits listed at the top of this paragraph are about, respectively: (a) how you can’t count on anyone else so you have to love yourself; (b) the 1988 Summer Olympics, and the glorious athletic moment of surpassing your own potential; and (c) the transformation of Dolly Parton’s sad and longing farewell song into a gale-force expression of fortitude.

It’s telling that when news of Houston’s death spread last night, one of the main clips traded around the Internet was the isolated vocal from “How Will I Know.” The focus wasn’t on her songs, her records, her “texts”—there was a widespread desire to cut through all that and commune directly with the voice itself. This is part of being the kind of singer Houston was: The material you sing is not always important, not always good, and not always the point. You’re expected to come out, night after night, and turn anything — a boilerplate ballad, an awards-show tribute to another artist, a number from a TV diva-off, our national anthem (which, judging by today’s renditions, now officially contains the melismatic “paroof” Houston slipped in) — into a stirring perfect eye-opener. The material is just a playing field. This is a version of the artist as an athlete. She has an unparalleled physical talent, and the world expects her to keep it in peak condition, physically and mentally, battling vocal-cord nodules or emotional strain instead of torn ligaments and bone spurs, all the while remaining likable and confident. Houston still defines that role, right down to its modern TV form, the music-as-athletics competition of American Idol, which is swamped in her showstopping ballad style.

So I guess what I’m saying is that if Houston spent her second decade and change being anything but perfect, and turning all her steely indomitable faces toward whatever wise counsel people offered her about solving her problems, and grinning that secret grin in a way that suddenly seemed defensive, as if nobody could understand what she wanted, but she still knew — well, maybe that’s not exceptionally surprising, or something to wag too many fingers at. She carried off being the ideal pop athlete for a very long time. People were shocked by her marriage to Bobby Brown, because the Houston they wanted to believe in was tough and perfect and did not have weird needs, especially not inscrutable emotional needs that would tie her to a man with obvious problems. But if she responded to those people, over and over, by assuring them that she and Brown were far, far more alike than anyone imagined — well, perhaps we should believe her. If, in the 2002 interview with Diane Sawyer that made the world officially conclude Houston was a wreck and an addict, she seemed to be summoning up the remnants of her regal poise to evade criticism and try to swipe the world off her back — well, perhaps that’s not exactly a shocking place for the perfect Whitney to wind up.

Whenever anyone with Houston’s kind of gift seems to be falling apart, we have a terrible habit of getting angry with them, and throwing around words like “squander” and “waste.” But what if the blessing of a talent is also the curse of having to lug it around like a workhorse, impressing everyone, and that very expectation is part of what makes talented people want to ignore the world and dive headlong into their own issues to begin with? In that Sawyer interview, when she’s asked what she’s learned from Brown as a performer, Houston says he helped her learn to become more fluid — “don’t be so constrained,” he taught her, because “nothing’s perfect.” And she’d been shouldering “perfect” for what must have been an annoyingly long time.

Whitney Houston and the Burden of Perfection