Whitney is Every Woman?: Cultural Politics and the Pop Star

Camera Obscura-A Journal of Feminism and Film Theory, 09-01-1995

Written By Marla Shelton

An American pop icon such as Whitney Houston raises questions about the politics of race, class, gender, sexuality, and the consequences of cross-over marketing in the music industry. My study attempts to unravel the layers of media representations that construct a contemporary pop superstar. While my conclusions are specific to Whitney Houston, one could consider any contemporary African American female pop singer, such as Janet Jackson or Mariah Carey, in a similar manner. My goal is to gather the various texts of a popular performer and trace the specific historical conditions that influence her presentation, consumption, and acceptance. Houston's pop success in the music industry and her career longevity have produced a broad array of texts created over a decade. These Houston texts provide historical markers through which to trace an icon's shaping and evolution in relationship to American social progress. If the struggle for affirmative action programs, desegregation, and civil rights during the 1960s can be understood in part as a fight for access to the lucrative marketplace of the commercial mainstream, then the result is a Black and white cultural integration that can be located in the industries of music, television, and film.

The historical setting surrounding Whitney Houston's rise in the popular performing arts coincides with Republican governments under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush. In a resume of the 1980s media landscape, cultural critics have noted specific moments of reactionary rhetoric, racial and class-based strife, a fracturing of identities, and a feminist backlash.[1] The 1980s remain an intriguing and unusual setting for an African American woman's spellbinding effect on the popular imagination.

In order to understand how texts perform around the performer, my methodology borrows from several cultural studies paradigms and blends a sociological approach with formal analysis of media texts. To consider the commodified publicity materials and discourse surrounding Houston can be illuminating and problematic. In this essay, I respond to several arguments espoused by critics Nelson George, Paul Gilroy, Stuart Hall, and Jacquie Jones, by name, but undoubtedly several other cultural critics influence my position on Houston. The texts I offer as data provide evidence about Whitney Houston's audience; however, more specific ethnographic research on the use of these texts would refine classifications of Houston's large audience. My discussion of cross-over marketing attempts to bridge three media forms: music, television, and film. I construct a narrative and define a dominant ideology in popular media texts about Whitney Houston in order to uncover the strategy she employs to remain unique and popular.[2]

To deconstruct the multi-texts of Whitney Houston we must first describe the history of the popular American music industry. When Houston was 21 years old in 1985, her first album, titled Whitney Houston, was released. The album was produced by Clive Davis for Arista records and it quickly broke sales records by selling approximately 30 million copies around the world. Currently, it remains one of the top selling records in the history of American music. The commercial success of this album represents a cross-over of Black music (R&B/Soul) into the hybrid, yet predominantly white category of Pop music, through careful marketing and promotion. While Black music has long reached white and ethnically diverse audiences, the 1980s marks a period when two musical race markets vied for dominance in the commercial sphere only to meld more and more into the popular mainstream.[3] While music streams have been defined as Black R&B and white Rock, and both categories have been dominated by men, during the 1980s racial and gender exclusivity in each market decreased.

Some pessimistic critics conclude that this convergence signals the demise of R&B and a loss of cultural capital for the African American community. During the 1970s, when large corporations bought Mom-and-Pop shops selling Black music produced on independent labels, few could imagine that by the 1980s, commercially viable Black music production would be part of white-controlled corporations and exclusively available at Tower Records, Virgin Megastores, or the like. The displacement of Mom-and-Pop organizations and independent Black music labels may reflect a power drainage on Black cultural capital; however, more optimistic critics endorse the restructuring of sales and production in the music industry. Currently, Black indies reminiscent of the 1970s operate as divisions in large music organizations and take advantage of better production facilities and broader distribution networks. Black artists and producers within this corporate structure maintain a semblance of autonomous control over the creation of their cultural products, even though dominant ideological pressures persist. The success of Whitney Houston's music falls within the parameters of this debate.

Houston's artistry captured a large audience and signaled consumers' growing proclivity for R&B music. According to a 1990 interview, Houston's debut solo album was produced to be a crossover album that would break out of the small Gospel and R&B niche. She desired a world- wide audience and career longevity. This strategic decision to produce a pop music and not an R&B album stirred up controversy for an African American woman in music because music sales are bound to cultural politics. As Paul Gilroy emphasizes, "records as cultural artifacts are encoded with meaning ... and are (significant) of black experience." [4] The issue of control over the production of Black experiences like Black music propels the political debate surrounding contemporary Black popular cultures. When Black albums are produced to appeal to whites, to cross over and join the mainstream with a conscious, strategic intent, this merging complicates the meaning of the experience of the music, which includes the influences of several contributors to the music-making process and the listener's own experience in using it. Moreover, the intent of crossover marketing materializes in the musical format and style, as well as in the album cover art and video promotional tools. Gilroy writes "the visual arts will play a key role in this, [the re-reading of a nation's cultural history by placing race at the center rather than the margin] not just because of the tremendous vitality of the black fine art during the last decade, but because architecture, aesthetics and art have recently emerged as politically significant issues."[5] Whitney Houston's popularity and representation in magazines, on television, and in films complicate the applicability of a Black Fine Arts aesthetic to popular visual culture. Furthermore, her icon allows the issue of gender to enter the forum of Black cultural politics.

Icons of Black popular culture are marketed through the construction of certain aesthetic characteristics. Stuart Hall points out that within Black popular culture, cover art can represent style closely aligned with music to add up to Black cultural capital: "Style--which mainstream cultural critics often believe to be the mere husk, the wrapping, the sugar coating on the pill--has become itself the subject of what is going on."[6] We can look to images in Houston's music videos to discern how her style is signified through her voice. Houston' s renditions are typically imbued with a soul-searching tone and an inspirational, spiritual elegance. Her emotionally moving deliveries resound above compositionally flat musical accompaniments. Furthermore, the image of wholesomeness is constructed through conservative, sophisticated costumes. Both vocal artistry and dress complement her performance style, which can be characterized as more sedate than dance-centered vocalists such as Jody Watley, Janet Jackson, and Salt N Pepa. Consequently, Whitney Houston's performance style provokes skepticism about her race and her authenticity because she does not resemble typical R&B singers, nor does she resemble the typical white popular singer. Specific examples of this skepticism can be found in popular African American media texts, which I will discuss later. These examples delineate the particular space of accusation that Whitney Houston occupies in tandem with her popular appeal. Houston's performance style mixes cultural signifiers by creating a synergy between a Black voice and body and a white musical format and theatricality, generating contradictions that force the reconsideration of race-based categories.

Furthermore, Houston's vocal style operates to subvert the dominant culture's insistence upon logocentrism. Stuart Hall posits that through Black music the Black Diaspora deconstructs the logocentric world founded by the mastery of writing. He writes: "the people of the black Diaspora have ... found the deep form, the deep structure of their cultural life in music."[7] Whitney Houston initiates the deconstruction of writing as she embodies the music she sings. Houston's cultural power lies in her voice and despite her lack of songwriting credits, her voice becomes her signature of authorship.

Moreover, the promotion of Houston's voice and music in video texts highlights the conversion of the Black body into Black cultural capital. Hall suggests that we "think of how these cultures have used the body- -as if it was, and it often was, the only cultural capital we had. We have worked on ourselves as the canvases of representation," then Houston's icon expands the perception of a female body as a "canvas" beyond traditional representation strategies. Houston's physical beauty can be described as soft, delicate, symmetrical, and compatible with idealized dominant European features, while remaining in accord with Black aesthetic traits such as skin tone, accent, and gesture. During the stylish music video age of the 1980s, Houston's popular status relied on her voice, body, dress, and beauty, which readily appealed to a larger audience than any R&B predecessor. Access to music video allowed images of Houston's body to complement her signature voice. Becoming more than a flat canvas, Houston's icon became embodied through her voice and represented by rapidly expanding visual culture.

Cross-over marketing always raises particular questions of consumption and audience. The artwork on an album cover/cd cover promotes the voice on the radio just as the video image sells the lip-synching singer. Album covers maintain a nostalgic place in Black popular culture. Gilroy claims "pictures on record covers still enjoy a folk art status [such that] they are outside the mainstream." Yet, I propose that the appropriate vantage point may not be outside, for contemporary Black records strive to be or are already produced as part of the mainstream. This inside track is the result of conscious cross-over marketing, the conglomeration of the music industry, and post-Civil Rights integration. As a symbolic mulatto icon where race and class codes are mixed, Whitney Houston represents the integration of white and Black America during the 1980s. This mixture coincides with a fantasmatic loss of authenticity, the residual effect of which is nostalgia. More specifically, Houston personifies an unstable Black middle-class entity that cannot be completely accepted and celebrated by the majority of African Americans because during the 1980s this community became even more economically and politically oppressed. Houston's economic privilege, the result of crossing over and gaining wide appeal, must be reconciled with a community becoming increasingly impoverished.[8]

As the media constructs her, Whitney Houston was born to be a star singer. Her mother, Cissy Houston, is a successful singer who sang back up to Aretha Franklin and Elvis Presley, and a founding member of the group, Sweet Inspirations. Houston's first cousin, Dionne Warwick, enjoyed a long stint during the early eighties on a music countdown show titled "Solid Gold." According to interviews, Houston grew up in a musical environment in a New Jersey middle-class setting.[9] After a solo at her Baptist church at the age of 12, Houston decided singing was her life's work. Her mother encouraged her to listen to Aretha Franklin, Chaka Kahn, and Luther Vandross, for whom she later sang backing vocals. As a popular figure, Houston's success invokes some irony because she sang back-up to the aforementioned older artists in her teens and then went on to outsell them by her early twenties. While Whitney Houston can be placed easily in the musical history of African American female singers that progresses from Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald, Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Chaka Kahn, and Tina Turner, what distinguishes her from this impressive group are the multiple visual representations that accompany her voice and the historical context of her career.

Around the time of Houston's breakthrough, other Black singers competed with her to take the top spot: Janet Jackson, Anita Baker, and Sade all demonstrated cross-over potential. By the time Whitney Houston' s second album was released in 1987, Vanessa Williams had joined the pack of commercial competitors, and Mariah Carey followed soon after 1990. Moreover, two established singers utilized music video promotion to continue selling records; Aretha Franklin and Tina Turner rekindled their popularity. Unlike the pop charts in the mid-eighties that seemed devoid of female vocalists, the R&B charts were inundated with Black female talent. Music award shows reflected the fierce competition.[10]

Attention to album cover art sheds more light on the politico-racial climate in the United States. For example, Gilroy points out that Aretha Franklin's 1972 Amazing Grace cover captures her wearing traditional African garb. In this representation, Africa symbolizes nature and goodness in opposition to America's artificiality and corruption. Afrocentrism counters the evil Black America myth.[11] The cover contributes to Franklin's success in capturing a Black listening audience. In contrast, on the cover of the 1985 Whitney Houston album, we see a young Houston, with her hair slicked back off her fresh young face, her lips closed, yet pursed. She poses in a white dress that reveals her bare shoulders and kneels in a pond of water as if she is Nerfertiti. Images of Afrocentricity in Houston's cover art are an effort to maintain her core audience. Water reinforces the image of a simple, natural, and youthful "girl" who sings about good love. She is a gem, a black pearl of talent, in her paradise of music. The verso artwork pictures Houston in a bathing suit posed on the beach in a shot that rivals a spread in the Sports Illustrated swim suit issue. From the cd artwork of Houston's album one can note that the Afrocentricity of the 1970s has been slicked down by pastiche that references visual codes suggesting Africa, but only to connect them to a sign that relates more closely to America in the 1980s. Despite all the Black posturing, Whitney Houston had been pegged early on in her career as a young Lena Horne, that is, a Black singer with white appeal. Unlike Houston, who seemed to knock down the doors and occupy white stages, Horne's performance venues were limited due to the political climate surrounding her career.

While Houston and Aretha Franklin may resemble each other in some folkloric ways, musically they stray apart. There are apparent differences in musical format and vocal style, as Nelson George notes: Compare Aretha Franklin to Whitney Houston. Franklin's music always relied heavily on the black inner city experience, and especially on the Black church. When she forgets that, she stumbles. Houston is extremely talented, but most of her music is so "color blind," such a product of eighties cross-over marketing, that in her commercial triumph is a hollowness of spirit that mocks her own gospel roots.[12]

Houston's music videos are decisive in making her a blatant cross- over marketing product. During the early 1980s, music video production garnered televisual popularity in the promotion of rock music, a predominately white, male-voiced category. In contrast, the predominantly Black female-voiced category of gospel music lagged in the production of music videos and this may reflect gospel music's current smaller market share. The videos for Houston's first album are notable for eschewing "soft porn" and gimmicks such as blue hair. In the video, "I want to dance with somebody," frequent costume changes present her as a mannequin, whose well-proportioned physique and dancer's posture show off designer clothes. When her hair is released from the bun, as it is pictured on the album's cover flowing in elaborate curls that flatter her well-structured visage, it becomes evident that motion pictures can accentuate the attractive Houston features. Under fluorescent lights, her skin captures the exciting colors the camera and image work to project. She developed a performance style that music video culture of the 1980s highlighted during a time when the display of excess sold to an audience hungry for electronic gimmicks. Consequently, the visual style of soul and R&B music dissipated with Houston's adoption of music video promotion. Yet, Houston communicated notes of her African American cultural heritage through alternative means in the media.

Entertainment magazines and periodicals construct a Whitney Houston persona by relying on race and class discourses. Initially, Houston stories appeared in African American journals such as Jet, Ebony, and Essence. In this register of the African American popular press, class, gender, and intraracial differences nuance each reading audience. In general, these magazines underscored Houston's upstanding contributions to her African American community and the music world, and her strong familial ties, illustrating that the Black audience was a core supportive audience. Gradually, with Houston's musical success, her icon crossed over to appear in Time, Newsweek, Rolling Stone, Life, Harper's Bazaar, Glamour, People, Premiere, and Good Housekeeping. Each of these targets specific reading audiences and follows journalistic formats that range from news coverage, music, lifestyle, and film, with less conscientious attention to race.

Even while race may separate the reading audiences of these two groups of periodicals, dominant ideological values, such as middle-class aspirations, respect for education and religion, and belief in the traditional, heterosexual family configuration unite them. As the construction of Houston's icon evolved, a narrative of the middle- class family developed. Jet reported that Houston's parents wanted her to finish private Catholic high school before embarking on a professional career. And when she started modeling Houston's mother wanted her to model strictly junior fashions to protect her from the overtly- sexualized poses of adult advertisements.[13] Whitney's modeling career as a teenager foreshadowed her later cross-over success; she appeared in Seventeen and Glamour, two periodicals with a large white readership. Houston's presence in visual media extended beyond the African American race market as ideological similarities appeared between Black and white presses, both of which were seeking to reduce the factor of race as a segregating influence in American social life during the 1980s.

Due to her youth, Houston navigated the media through a trope of the family upheld by dominant society and targeted to both African Americans and whites. The family is, as Gilroy points out, "an important cultural trope of the black Diaspora."[14] However, Gilroy points out the pitfalls when the family is reinscribed in a hegemonic, patriarchal order that equates Black social and political life with a crisis of Black masculinity. However, I am positing that Houston's icon challenges Gilroy's oedipal trope of the family by illustrating how female gender and middle-class status can reconfigure the family trope.

In fact, as an icon, Houston can be read as a challenge to a patriarchal family trope in pop culture. Complementing the maternal line of stardom Houston inherited from Cissy Houston and Dionne Warwick, Houston's father subsequently took credit for her initial success by handling the business details.[15] An article in Ebony characterizes Houston as "Daddy's little girl" who "knew better about life" from the close mother-daughter relationship she sustained as she toured with her musical siblings. Houston's vocal training followed Gospel and Soul traditions due to her family background, while the media depicted her as a princess in an entertainment dynasty.[16] In addition to family as a cultural trope, Houston's icon expressed a respect for God to appeal to an African American audience.[17] However, Houston' s goody-goody, God-fearing image, which the Black press strongly publicized, soon fell prey to scrutiny and accusations as the Houston icon quickly matured.

On her second solo album (1987), simply and more personally titled Whitney, Houston employed four male producers to execute the tracks, and the album charted seven number one hits. The cover art captured a standing Whitney with a ponytail of curls, smiling and wearing a man's undershirt with jeans. The image communicates a more aggressive singer than the first album cover. Notably, reviews were accepting and pleasantly surprised, as if the album reassured us that the first release was not a "fluke." The album debuted at #1 on Billboard's R&B charts, confirming her acceptance among the race market. Yet with the "little girl" image fading fast, media outlets found it harder to apply the trope of the family to Houston.

Media texts other than print journalism reveal a growing fragmentation in Houston's audience. The success of Houston's two albums in the pop charts backfired in the African American community. For example, on the television comedy show "In Living Color," she was the butt of criticism and was compared to Janet Jackson.[18] While her live shows for the second album were void of dance numbers, her energy and spontaneity captured the audience who could afford the price of admission. Unfortunately, the small, supportive live show audiences did not coincide with the mass Black audience and Whitney was transformed into "Whitey Whitney" among the smaller factions of her audience confounded by the massive cross-over appeal of Houston's music.[19]

However, not all the discourse surrounding Houston during this phase of her career is negative. Alongside comparisons to Frank Sinatra and Barbara Streisand in People magazine, the white press figured Whitney as a racial exception to the musical mainstream. Furthermore, gossip trade magazines such as The Enquirer reported on her scandalous lifestyle and her alleged lesbianism, which served to disrupt the dominant heterosexist ideology of mainstream publications. As rumors of her bisexuality and lesbianism permeated Houston interviews and magazines, spreads that positioned her as heterosexual began to appear. Titles of articles such as "Whitney and the men in her life" testified for Houston's desire to enter the bonds of heterosexual marriage.[20] Romantic connections linked her with Eddie Murphy and a professional football player. When asked about matrimony in 1987, Houston responded that she would need ten years before settling down, but that she was eager to raise a family.

By the early 1990s, the family trope positioned Houston's icon more as a matriarch than as a daughter. Houston matured during a three year courtship before a 1992 wedding to Bobby Brown. When they married on her New Jersey estate in a well-publicized ceremony, media reports continued to accent her race and class position. The guest list included business and entertainment moguls such as Donald Trump, Robin Leach, and Gloria Estefan, to reflect the ethnic diversity of an elite social circle, while the Black press described the estate as the pinnacle of luxury. There were attempts to romanticize the union, but the upper- class material possessions and the presentation of a fairy tale wedding in the media were unable to mask the shady past of her partner.

The orchestrated marriage complicated Houston's persona and marked a stage of audience recuperation in her career. Houston's marriage to a younger man with a smaller career, who admitted to having children with other women who he never married, and who was raised in a working- class section of Boston, was an effort to reestablish the trope of the family with a touch of romance. However, it was not Houston who defended her choice of a husband, but Bobby Brown who legitimated his spouse by calling her "a real black woman" who had a touch of "b-girl in her."[21] Houston's marriage to Brown submerged her in an intraracial discourse, as it complicated the issue of race by highlighting gender and class differences. In terms of persona, the marriage bolstered Houston's display of blackness and maturity and reduced Brown's street rogue image. The couple quickly released a duet and a video about how much they love each other, "Something in Common." The marriage confirmed Houston's heterosexuality as it shed her little girl image and lesbian cast and restored a new portrait of her as a Black woman.

Houston's womanhood was legitimated by marriage and her ability to rehabilitate a wayward Brown into a respectable African American father. Publicity announced Houston's pregnancies and miscarriages and made public her personal condition as she continued to perform and film promotional music videos in spite of her changing shape. These images, along with gossip trade magazines reporting the trials and tribulations of her "rocky" marriage, functioned to create a discourse of the family that Black audiences could identify with.[22] As Gilroy states, "images of black family complement the trope of family that appears in the cultural forms themselves. They are all around us in the selling of black popular culture."[23] Notably, images of the family sold the icon of Whitney Houston.

Furthermore, the trope of the family must be read from a political perspective because, as Alexander Crummel points out in Africa or America, "The family is seen as the key unity out of which nationality is built [and is] ... the central means of cultural reproduction." [24] However, despite attempts to prop Whitney Houston up as an ideal who upholds middle-class family values, her icon oscillates to reveal the vulnerable state of the Black woman in contemporary culture.

One critic can argue that race is synonymous with family: "Race, like families, are organisms and the ordinance of god. Indeed, race is family...."[25] What occurs when races mix? However, the film, The Bodyguard, released in 1992, illustrates the complex apprehension associated with interracial relationships. The Bodyguard launched Houston's film career and placed her in a predominantly white Warner Brothers' production, working for Lawrence Kasden (producer/screenwriter) under the direction of Mick Jackson, and acting opposite large box office draw Kevin Costner. Although the film presents itself as a story about Frank Farmer's (Kevin Costner) role as a bodyguard, a closer look reveals that the story revolves around the threat posed to Rachel Matron (Whitney Houston) by a hired assassin. In the process of securing Rachel's safety, Frank and Rachel's personal worlds collide when they realize danger and deceit surround them. Rachel's livelihood depends on her ability to dazzle her music and film audience. Moreover, she must prove that she is responsible for her only son Fletcher. Fletcher's father is inexplicably absent, and consequently, Frank Farmer operates as a potential father for the boy when he and Rachel ignite a romance. Rachel's home is grandiose and filled with business associates and few friends. Her milieu is conspicuously foreign and heterogeneous, as a British public relations agent, an Italian American bodyguard, and ethnically mixed dancers occupy her home. Rachel lacks a man to protect her, which prompts her to pay Frank for his services. Consequently, the film inverts the typical racialized employer-servant relationship and signals ambivalence and anxiety about interracial relationships. After Frank and Rachel sleep together and mention loving acts that occur off-screen, denying the spectator a pleasurable experience, Frank rebels against the relationship. He abandons the ravaged, dark, and beautiful Rachel in a pile of white sheets. In turn, she publicly shuns and humiliates him. Quickly, the film pictures separation and conflict more clearly than images of the couple's union, as it proceeds to question the desirability of an interracial couple.

The narrative is unable to reconcile a taboo love affair, and it uses a frail work ethic as a lever. Furthermore, it undermines Rachel's role as a mother. When Fletcher mediates between the two mismatched lovers by talking with Frank and quotes Rachel's foul language, Frank chastises him. Rachel's influence directly alienates Fletcher from a prospective father figure. Finally, a desperate Rachel retreats to Farmer's care for safety and companionship. Consequently, Rachel, as the employer and mistress, tumbles from her superior position, abandons her artificial and closed world of ethnic companions, and accepts Frank's conditions.

The film positions women as responsible for destructive acts when Rachel escapes with Frank to his father's bachelor cabin. A snowy, desolate backdrop and the lack of a mother's or wife's presence, create a remorseful atmosphere, accented by somber interior and harsh exterior lighting schemes and a melancholy soundtrack. After we learn that Farmer's attendance at his mother's funeral has caused him to miss the day of work when President Reagan was shot, more feelings of regret surface when Rachel's sister, Nickki, reveals herself as the perpetrator of violence before she dies, unable to stop the hitman she hired. Attributing Nickki's betrayal to jealousy illustrates the film's deep mistrust of African American sister-to-sister relationships. While sibling rivalry may function convincingly to sever brothers in the popular gangster genre films, this violent sibling rivalry between two sisters is misappropriated in this hybrid genre film: domestic melodrama-backstage musical-detective thriller.

Rachel, Fletcher, and Frank return to the artificial world of Hollywood to face more violence as the film focuses on the mental stress of the lead characters. Throughout the film, Rachel accuses Frank of being a "fanatic" and "crazy" and reproaches him for driving her to the same brink of insanity. While love is unable to unite the interracial couple, they can share similar mental flaws. The narrative allows "craziness" and corruption to cross racial and gender lines. White men are Rachel's assailants and, by the end, her feelings and her misconceptions rival those of her stalkers. When Frank and Rachel' s union unravels, the dramatic shoot-out serves to excuse Frank's previous misdeeds and restore his credibility as a bodyguard, with a gesture of sacrifice prolonged by slow motion photography. Rachel wears the sign of male violence on her expensive gown, which soaks in the blood from Frank's wounds. At this point, horror surrounds Rachel and Frank's relationship.

Rachel is the strong-willed matriarch of a broken family who goes out on the metaphoric limb, the stage, to reap only material rewards and she suffers evil consequences for them. All the Black men in her world are ineffectual and function to gauge the deficiency of Black men in this upper-middle-class world. For example, Farmer's conversation with the Black chauffeur is the first and only verbal moment where the narrative enunciates race in a derogatory manner. Farmer describes the chauffeur as a lazy, cocky man who will be hit, as he delivers a punch-line to a joke that, in light of contemporary cultural politics, is not very funny. According to the film, a lower-class Black man is not suitable to save Rachel. Furthermore, Rachel wants a virile man without gray hair, and she never obtains him in the end. The film suggests that it's better for her to be alone and to tame her sexual lust for white skin. In the end, Frank and Rachel separate, the makeshift family disintegrates, and the charade stops with a fleeting kiss.

The film reflects the contradictory position of Black women in contemporary society and undermines Black feminist notions. Rachel represents a breadwinner and single mother and simultaneously, the regressive Black woman, when her livelihood and happiness depend on the emotional support of a white man. The film text expresses an uneasiness with the racial and economic conditions of Rachel's status by denying her the means to improve her emotional life without placing her career in jeopardy. The film exposes sisterhood, both white and Black, as a falsehood, while Black men register as a hopeless non-factor. Rachel remains a solitary, tragic shadow of success, whereby the film communicates that there is no emotional salvation for a middle-class Black woman.

Houston's role in the film Waiting to Exhale repeats a role transition similar to the one set forth in The Bodyguard. In Waiting to Exhale, Houston moves from the superstar and glamour queen set to become a member of a working, middle-class clique. Waiting to Exhale received praise for its representation of African American women in a middle- class milieu. Based on the novel by Terry McMillan, directed by Forrest Whitaker, and distributed by Fox Pictures, the film is refreshing since it makes African American women central to a Hollywood film narrative without representing them as drug-starved prostitutes or corpulent maids. However, in spite of their class-based success and material rewards, the women bemoan their single status. As if singlehood creates a stupor, throughout the film these women seem drawn together and confined in the domestic space of a living room as if by an uncontrollable desire to lament their failed efforts. The film fails to convey whether a Black man could cure their emotional hangovers, as it strikes an accord that covers two extremes. The film's conclusion offers Wesley Snipes and Gregory Hines as antidotes to the loneliness of singlehood even as it advocates single motherhood.

Houston's character floats in the middle of this ideologically disparate scale. Jacqueline remains single and childless, yet her role in the narrative is central through recurring voice-over monologues in the film text, in addition to the film's publicity, which highlights Houston' s prominent place in the ensemble cast. Again, we see how Houston' s voice becomes the signature mouthpiece for the film's promotion with the theme song, "Shoop."  The music video, also directed by Forrest Whitaker, focuses on a close-up shot of Houston's face. Shots of Houston sporting a short and mature coif are cross-cut with scenes from the film. The video concept's originality stops with Houston's hair style as its stark simplicity underscores the "straight and narrow" politics of the film.

The Preacher's Wife, a film directed by Penny Marshall, allows Houston to "return" to the gospel roots typically confined by the pop music mainstream. Houston's role allows her voice to transform her character into a conveyer of godliness. Houston's soundtrack and musical performances in the film carry the picture over any ebbs in action and abstract conflicts, building toward a climatic ending when she rouses the audience through song. In the film, Houston substitutes as a young Virgin Mary and her chastity and kindness uphold high moral codes. Houston's central role as the preacher's wife supports family unity in the midst of crisis, however, the film has difficulty expressing any intimacy between the three stars and exemplifies Hollywood's inability to capture Black love. The most physically moving and visceral scenes are when Houston sings. The filmmakers take great pains to show Houston sweat and gleam from her musical releases, but any similar signs of emotion for her lovers evaporate when she meets a tempting angel, played by Denzel Washington, or when she reconciles with her husband. Awkward dialogue and settings make the struggle to convey sexual tension in this Black love story difficult. Furthermore, the film creates a Black community where there is only intraracial, class conflict. The film's nostalgia is apparent when it questions economic "progress" in the Black community and rests on an idealistic notion that racial unity will solve all setbacks.

From her film roles to Houston's real-life role as a wife and mother to interpretations of her
sexuality in gossip magazines, representations accumulate to place the Houston icon in an accusatory space.[26] While strength and maternalism shine forth in magazine spreads, vulnerability and weakness characterize Houston's feminine place in Hollywood. Only at the local level and through community outreach can Houston's icon escape negative accusations. During the 1980s, Houston donated money to build Houston Estates, a housing development in Newark, New Jersey and in 1989, she founded the Whitney Houston Children's Foundation. She has been honored for her committed charity work by media organizations such as VH-1. During the 1980s, Whitney Houston was honored by George Bush for her community action and elected to a Board of Governors. The United Negro College Fund honored her for her financial support of Black colleges, and for her wedding, the couple requested guests donate to their favorite charities in lieu of gifts. At the local level, Whitney Houston becomes less commodified and consequently more noble and philanthropic because her generosity is geographically and demographically specific, unlike the expanse of commodity empire.

In Black popular music, there are three points to consider: the production of Black popular
music, the diverse Black responses according to class ideology, locality etc., and the burden on talent to prove its authenticity. As Gilroy writes, Music which was the centre of black vernacular culture for such a long time, has acquired a new place and a new significance. It is no longer the hermeneutic key to a whole medley of expressive practices and is infrequently appreciated for itself or for its capacity to express the inexpressible and communicate the effects of a history of barbarity that exhausts the resources of language. They are burdened with the task of conjuring up a utopia of racial authenticity that is everywhere denied but still sought nonetheless. This new role for music as a cipher for authenticity has developed hand in hand with a technological revolution in musical production.[27]

By singing the national anthem at the 1991 Superbowl, and by performing a post-Gulf War
benefit concert for the Red Cross that was released for home video sales, Whitney Houston gives a Black voice to the American nation. The fact that Houston's singing was pre-recorded in case she suffered from laryngitis in the first case, and exploited by the technology and commodification for video sales in the latter, suggests the common bind for contemporary Black vocalists. Live music communicates authenticity because it is temporally and spatially aligned with the singer's body; if the music is pre-recorded, authenticity of performance breaks, and without the necessary spontaneity, authenticity fades. The theoretical notion that Black oral culture can be at odds with technology explains the questioning of Houston's popular success by her Black American audience and critics. Her music can be highly mediated by technology and this tends to detract from the signifiers of Black cultural authenticity. Gilroy writes that "it is interesting that music has come to signify authenticity at the very moment when it has evolved into new styles that are inescapably hybrid and multiplex in character."[28] Some consumers, such as strict buyers of R&B and Rock, for example, may dismiss Houston's music because she represents an intolerable hybridity with pop music conventions: "struggles over the commodification of black music are reflected in a dialectical conflict between the technology of reproduction and the sub-cultural needs of its primary consumers in the 'race market.'"[29] From this study, a reader can surmise the paradoxical nature of contemporary pop music that fulfills the needs of a race market that been slow to embrace technological mastery. Part of the race market's antagonism to pop technology is the dominant music industry's history of denying a subcultural group access to technology.  Furthermore, with multiculturalism's simultaneous denial and pronunciation of difference, the race market disintegrates as it consistently redefines itself through the artist and the consumer. That technology is the manipulator of authenticity is apparent when one listener notes how Houston can sound "more Black" on the single "I'm Every Woman" than on the earlier "I Wanna Dance With Somebody." [30] By manipulating technology and the demands of the marketplace, Houston can sound more "black" when it is necessary for her to pronounce her blackness.

Houston's career started off as a non-threatening pursuit of the mainstream, where she
celebrated love as a race-effacing force in variations on one joyous love theme--"you give Good love," "saving all my love for you," "the greatest love of all"--made for safe, depoliticized easy listening. However, as the tempo in cultural politics progressed, Houston was obliged to more openly define, embrace, and express her blackness in order to maintain a large consumer audience. Her November 1994 concert for a New South Africa, which was produced by her company, Nippy, Inc., captures the awkwardness of this reclamation of her roots. Several Whitney Houston icon identities from her long, varied career converge in this concert. We see an emphasis on her body translate into her stage show. The set design utilizes her two album covers, which frame her face, to decorate the wings of the stage and she employs dancers who resemble her individual body aesthetic. The camera frequently frames Houston with the dancers to create a mirroring effect. The dancing troupe excludes men by coupling young women with pre-pubescent girls, who I affectionately call Little Whitneys. The loosely curled hair and the brown to yellow skin tones of all the women create a Whitney-look-alike, ripple-effect, as we see Houston in triplicate. This mimetic strategy contrasts with that of Madonna, who sets herself apart as a performer by gender, ethnic, and racial contrast and who performs complex dance steps with her troupe. By positioning herself at the center and dancing only rarely, Houston projects a distinctive feminine diva quality. During the concert, she expresses a nomadic discourse when she lists her experiences in foreign countries "I have been to" and evokes the metaphor of herself as a reflection of the South African Nation, which is highly provocative since the nation has been divided by a stringent Black and white racial dichotomy. Houston presents herself as universal, a body devoid of race, class, and sexual limitations because she relies on her singing voice to transcend these distinctions.

Houston's inclusion of children performers in her 1994 concert speaks to her ability to
communicate her love of the young. While her film roles minimize her motherly instinct, her 1995 and 1996 appearances on Nickelodeon's award ceremonies as hostess illustrate how Houston' s icon is fabricated by layers of media. Houston captures a broad audience as a result of this image weave. Currently, Houston attracts a more mature adult audience in her Hollywood film venues, while her television appearances capture a more youth-oriented market. Understood as a matrix, the media landscape has been saturated with Houston in various roles.

Houston's voice functions as the "true voice" of America in AT&T commercial campaigns. This campaign is reminiscent of the use of Ella Fitzgerald' s voice to distinguish between live performance and Memorex tape in the late 1970s. Houston's voice resonates in a multi-racial nation and her body stands in for a global structure of communication across various borders. While at the commercial level she seems to be both accepted by dominant culture and to be upholding hegemonic principles, this article has argued that her icon is not without problematic cultural implications regarding issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality. As Gilroy argues, Races are not, then, simple expressions of either biological or cultural sameness. They are imagined--socially and politically constructed- -and the contingent process from which they emerge may be tied to equally uneven patterns of class formation to which they, in turn, contribute. Thus ideas about race may articulate political and economic relations in a particular society which go beyond the distinct experiences of interests of racial groups to symbolize wider identities and conflicts.[31]

Whitney Houston's representation of blackness and Black womanhood in American culture
builds an image web where the politics of race, class, gender, and sexuality converge. Her
career remains an important symbol in American culture of the identity rainbow and of that
rainbow' s inherent conflicts.


1. See Watching Race: The Struggle for Blackness in Television by Herman Gray
(Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1995) and Susan Faludi' s Backlash (New York: Crown, 1991) for good discussions of the political climate surrounding the production of images of African Americans and women in the media during the 1980s.

2. I categorize print advertisements and journalistic articles as publicity texts and distinguish movie posters and cd/album covers as artistic promotional materials where one should consider the meanings created from photographic layouts. Furthermore, I consider changes in the mediation of voice and the beauty aesthetic in music and televisual images of Houston. My analysis of televisual images considers the industrial practices of music television programming and the conventions of music video narratives and the growing reliance on televisual images to market pop music. Moreover, I posit the success of Hollywood feature films, The Bodyguard and Waiting to Exhale, as two converging points of music and television audiences with the contemporary dominant practices of the Hollywood system.

3. See Nelson George's Death of Rhythm and Blues (New York: Pantheon, 1988) for a
complete analysis of the race music market. George dismisses Houston's music as the
selling out of Rhythm and Blues, where I argue Houston's success marks a new stage in the industry of popular music. George points out that a Black radio station in New York regularly played songs by white performers: Queen's "Another one bites the dust" and "Voices inside my head" by The Police. In the 1990s, radio stations that play only "pop" records continue to blur the race market paradigms. Consequently, a Phil Collins ballad may play next to a rap song by Snoop Doggy Dog.

4. Paul Gilroy, Small Acts: Thoughts on the Politics of Black Cultures (New York: Serpent's Tail Press, 1993) 239. 5. Gilroy, Small Acts 79.

6. Stuart Hall, "What Is This Black Popular Culture?" Black Popular Culture, ed. Gina Dent
(Seattle: Bay Press, 1993) 27. 7. Hall 27.

8. See William Juleps Wilson's The Declining Significance of Race (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1979) for an analysis of how race influenced the economic and political economy of urban life during the 1970s.

9. Joy Duckett Cain, "The Soul of Whitney Houston," Essence December 1990: 54.

10. The 1986 Grammy Awards had Whitney Houston up against Aretha Franklin for "Freeway of Love," Chaka Kahn for "I Feel For You," and Teena Marie for "Lover Girl," Sade, Melba Moore, and Nona Hendryx. Houston was the top AMA nominee with Alabama, Phil Collins, and Ricky Nelson all receiving 5 nominations. Whitney won two awards that year. At the AMA, Tina Turner was the only African American performer not to win strictly in the R&B category by winning for best pop rock vocalist in 1986. Since 1986, Houston has won at least 12 AMA awards, 2 Grammys, and several other music awards.

11. Gilroy, Small Acts 211. In this discussion a binary is established: Africa vs. America
corresponds to a natural goodness vs. a blackness imbued with fascism and corruption.

12. Nelson xiv. 13. Cain, "The Soul of Whitney Houston."

14. Gilroy, "It's a Family Affair," Black Popular Culture 303.

15. Lynn Norment, "Whitney Houston: Forever Daddy's Girl" Ebony June 1990: 132.

16. "Whitney Houston: For a talented young star, singing is a family tradition," Ebony
December 1985: 155-162.

17. "Whitney Houston tells what God gave her," Jet February 1986: 58-60.

18. The comedy skit "Whitney's Rhythmless Nation" evoked criticism from Houston, who
thought "Dancerless Nation" would have been more appropriate.

19. Author notes a publicity sign for Whitney Houston on a University campus that had been modified by a passerby to read Whit-ey Houston. 20. Jet 20 March 1989: 12.

21. "Whitney says Bobby is 'all the man I need,'" Jet 17 August 1992: 12-18.

22. The television program, "In Living Color" continues to parody Whitney Houston as a naive woman who takes care of all Bobby's children while he goes out and cheats on her. It's even funnier when one knows that the show's producer, Keenan Ivory Wayans, attended the Houston- Brown wedding ceremony. 23. Gilroy, Small Acts 24.

24. Alexander Crummel, Africa or America (Springfield, Mass: Willey and Co., 1891) 46.

25. Crummel 46.

26. See Jacquie Jones, "The Accusatory Space," Black Popular Culture 95-99. 27. Gilroy,
Small Acts 5-6.

28. Gilroy, Small Acts 6. 29. Gilroy, Small Acts 38.

30. Response to the presentation of "Whitney" paper at the Study of Popular Music
Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, July 1995.

31. Gilroy, Small Acts 20-21.

Shelton, Marla, Whitney is Every Woman?: Cultural Politics and the pop star.


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