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Monday, February 13, 2012

Remembering Whitney...

I never thought my first blog would be created out of tragedy, but the recent death of Whitney Houston has compelled me to start writing about the greatest passion in my life - the power of the female singing voice. All my life I have been continually fascinated, thrilled and occasionally obsessed by a range of individual female talents, covering the full spectrum of musical genres, and they have created the soundtrack to my life. I know I am far from unique in this devotion, in fact sharing the joy of music with others is one of life's most distinct pleasures; but I hope that my thoughts and views on female vocalists might be of interest to others - I am certain it will provoke debates and disagreements at times.

Whitney Houston was undoubtedly commercially and critically among the most successful female artists to date, but you can find the list of her achievements elsewhere. I want to focus on the music, the voice, sharing some thoughts on her life and touching on her legacy by choosing the ten songs that I believe are her greatest achievements.

I was 15 when I first heard Saving All My Love For You, while I thought the song was derivative (with the melody surely lifted from Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue), there was no questioning the quality of that voice. The power, precision and tone was remarkable, even more so for an artist making their first album. Whitney is often lumped in with the "belters", those female singers who rely on the sheer power and force of their vocals to sell a song, but although she has on occasion been guilty of belting, Whitney shows us on this song that she understands dynamics and the importance of storytelling for a singer. When you listen to this tale of the "other woman", you end up loving the homewrecker, no mean feat in the days when rising divorce rates still held some shock factor. Whitney arrived with this song and for that reason alone, it remains a favourite.

By the time Whitney's second album came out in 1987, I was a fully-fledged fanatic. The anticipation for new material was overwhelming and when I heard the first single my devotion felt fully justified. I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me) is not just, for me, the best record of 1987, it is still in my all-time top ten records by anybody, ever (those who know me know I love making lists...). This would be a great song whoever sang it, but Whitney's vocal lifts it to a place where no other vocalist could dream to reach. It is not just the tight delivery of the lyrics, it's the embellishments and vocal licks that turn this apparently desperate plea into a power prayer to feel the joy of connecting with another person. This is Whitney at the top of her game, confident, happy, in control. While bigger success would follow, you never again had the feeling that she was this free with her art.

The album Whitney spawned four consecutive number 1 hits in the US and it is the last of these, Where Do Broken Hearts Go, which is my next pick. One of the early criticisms of Whitney was that her voice lacked emotion. Sure she had the range, the technical precision, but she didn't connect with the listener at the emotional level, like say Billie, Etta or Ella. It might surprise you to hear that I can acknowledge and accept that criticism on Whitney's early recordings. For me, Didn't We Almost Have It All is a great example of a powerhouse vocal performance that lacks sincerity in the delivery; it shows that at this time in her life Whitney clearly hadn't the life experience to bring true feeling to some of the lyrics she was asked to sell. One may wish now that had remained the case for Whitney's sake. However, for me she did connect on Where Do Broken Hearts Go. It is among her more simple ballads, a pretty, un-showy melody and a real story that Whitney tells with genuine feeling. It was my go-to song during my teenage heartbreaks and can still cause me to weep now. It will be a hard listen when I can bring myself to play it again.

In 1988 Whitney released a single that celebrated that year's Summer Olympics. One Moment In Time is special to me for the simple reason that it is a glorious, unapologetic diva-fest. It's not a love song, it's a life song. Yes, it is easy to sneer at the lyrics (particularly for us Brits), but a non-cynical heart can find much to love in it's message of "try to be your best". It is an example of Whitney at the height of her vocal power and for that, and the crescendos, I am thankful.

Whitney's third album failed to reach the commercial success of her first two; it does feel a little formulaic, with largely safe material, the quality of which is definitely less than what came before. However, the lead-off single and title track again had me ecstatic. I'm Your Baby Tonight has a tricky syncopated melody and is not as immediate a hit as her previous uptempo pop songs, but once more the power of her vocal turns these potential drawbacks into virtues. It feels like Whitney growing up, taking more artistic risks - the bridge is phenomenal, smart and funky. This was the birth of "fierce" Whitney, she was in control, kicking asses and taking numbers. Fierce Whitney was at her peak on It's Not Right But It's Okay, which just missed making this list, but she arrived on this track. Every empowered R&B diva that followed must thank Whitney for showing them how it should be done.

Following this relative commercial disappointment came Whitney's masterpiece. The soundtrack to her movie The Bodyguard remains the best-selling soundtrack album of all time and the single I Will Always Love You is by far her best-known and most successful song. I must admit that I rarely play it now, it is so ubiquitous and is one of those records that became so successful it can feel too familiar, almost dull (My Heart Will Go On is another example). However, when I think back to my early reaction to the record when it was first released, I can still recall the incredible impact it had on me. This was when any critic of Whitney's emotional sincerity was silenced for good. The acapella intro is devastating, it immediately transfixes the listener and immobilises them until the final soaring note four minutes later. Now you know I love me some Dolly, but Whitney takes her simple yet heartfelt country song and turns it into a blistering torch song, which can rank against any 11 o'clock number in music history. Yes, it is a victim of it's own success, but one day soon find some alone time, press play and think back to when you first heard this remarkable, timeless classic and feel that thrill again.

Two year's later and Whitney's next movie, Waiting To Exhale, also featured original Whitney material on the soundtrack. Exhale (Shoop Shoop) is a charming pop song. Whitney's vocal on this track feels effortless and light, a real antidote to some of her more divalicious performances. The lovely throwback feel of the Shoop, Shoop refrain makes you wish Whitney had at some point recorded a covers album, it would have been wonderful to hear her take on material from another era, allowing for a fairer comparison with her vintage peers. On this evidence it would have been a favourable outcome.

Whitney's fifth studio album came out of the blue, at least for me. Released without great fanfare in 1998, My Love Is Your Love promised "Whitney Like You've Never Heard Her Before!". I'm not certain that's strictly true, but this album certainly updated Whitney's sound and brought her back as a current and relevant artist again. This is a strong album filled with great songs and Whitney turns in some stellar performances, for example on the Diane Warren ballad I Learned From The Best. However, my pick is the title track, a stomping anthem written and produced by The Fugees that provides Whitney with a solid vibe on which to float a part dreamy, part hopeful vocal that feels genuinely authentic. Given what was happening in her personal life, this album is a miracle. Sadly it effectively also marked the end of Whitney as a force in popular music.

You would be forgiven if you had never heard of Whitney's next album, Just Whitney. It failed to make the Top 75 album chart in the UK and sold less than a million copies in the US. It is not a bad album, it is just not that great either. We can only assume Whitney's personal struggles were badly impacting her ability to attract high quality material and talent. The album was produced by Whitney and Bobby Brown and a lot of it feels "phoned in". The album's one bright spot is the ballad On My Own, a survivor song about taking control of your life, which felt hopeful then and feels hopeless now. It's dangerous to read too much autobiography into a singer's work, the greatest singers are consummate actors, but it's hard not to listen to this and feel a cry for help that went unheard.

For Whitney fans, her final album, 2009's I Look To You was a mixed blessing. It was of course thrilling to have her back on what felt like good form, but it also exposed just how much damage had been done to her voice. Being positive about it, Whitney finally had a "Holiday" edge to her vocals, but seeing her live the following year proved just how much work must have taken place in the studio to deliver the relatively polished vocals on show on the album. The love and admiration felt for Whitney from the music industry is apparent in the talented songwriters and producers she was once more able to attract; Diane Warren again provides a killer ballad in I Didn't Know My Own Strength. However, my pick is the R Kelly authored title track, which then felt like a lost friend coming home, but now, tragically, feels like her epitaph. We can only speculate how much her ill-advised tour impacted on her ego, I have never seen so many people walk out of a show. If only she had stuck to recording, she may have been able to build on what is, in the circumstances, a remarkable album. I am grateful she had the chance to make one final album and leave on an artistic high note, but the self-destruction of her instrument and her pitiable downfall will remain inexplicable to those who loved her gifts, but couldn't know the trials she faced in her personal life.

So, where does she stand in the pantheon of great female singers? Opinions are always coloured by the musical era you grow up in, personal tastes and current fashions, but I do believe that Whitney Houston deserves to be counted as the most technically brilliant female pop vocalist that has yet been recorded. Her combination of precision, control, range, tone and unique artistry are untouchable. Yes, there are better emoters of a lyric, yes, there are stronger bodies of work, but in pure vocal terms in her prime she was unbeatable. Thank you Whitney, I trust you have finally found peace.

If you enjoyed reading this blog, please consider forwarding it or linking to it from your Facebook or Twitter account. Also you can hear the tracks mentioned in this week's blog on my Spotify account at the following link: Remembering Whitney.

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