[From USA Today]

Houston, your comeback CD might have a problem
Thu Sep 26, 9:46 AM ET
Steve Jones and Ken Barnes USA TODAY

Record labels plan the return of a musical superstar after a four-year absence like a military campaign, with a kickoff song establishing a strong beachhead in the public mind. But Whitney Houston's first salvo appears to have misfired.

Her current single, Whatchulookinat, which finds the diva excoriating her critics and prying busybodies, lost steam quickly after initial radio airplay in July:

* It peaked at No. 37 on the Airplay Monitor rhythmic top 40 chart (measuring airplay on R&B and hip-hop-oriented top 40 radio) while failing to enter the 40-position mainstream (pop) top 40 and R&B/hip-hop charts -- an ominous showing for an artist whose past tally of No. 1 records is in double figures.

* In its best week, ending Aug. 24, it was played 575 times at rhythmic top 40 stations, according to airplay tracking firm Mediabase -- less than 20% of the No. 10 song that week.

* After its peak week, the song declined in total spins by 7%, 27%, 42% and 53%, receiving just 107 plays in the format last week.

* Whatchulookinat? Nothing -- no video was released to support the single, which is unusual for a star's leadoff song. A dance remix was released and has reached the top 5 on the dance-club play charts.

The subpar performance of the single is even more surprising in light of the successful campaign surrounding her hit-filled 1998 album, My Love Is Your Love, to re-establish her in the younger-leaning market. Houston signed a $100 million contract with Arista a year ago and is poised to put out the first album, Just Whitney ... , under that deal Nov. 26.

Arista executives declined to comment on Whatchulookinat's performance other than to say it was leaked to radio while the album was still being recorded. In some cases a leak can dilute the impact of a new song and influence a label to back off an aggressive promotional campaign. Arista says a new single -- with a video -- is due in October.

The lack of a video and normal marketing setup were among the reasons the song didn't catch fire, radio experts say. Usually, heavy airplay on MTV and BET helps generate a buzz on a song.

''I think Whitney did a great job with My Love Is Your Love because she gave classic Whitney that was in tune with where music was going,'' says Dion Summers, program director at WERQ, a Baltimore R&B station. ''She's going to have to do that again to stay ahead of the curve. A lot of listeners said (this) song sounded dated. Maybe going the disses route wasn't the way to reintroduce herself to the marketplace.''

Summers says the lack of a video contributed to listener indifference. ''In this day and age, a video is a no-brainer. If that's not in place, you're already two steps behind in the game.''

Eric Powers, program director at Seattle's KUBE, a rhythmic top 40 station, says the record never took off with his audience and didn't get good feedback from listeners.

''People thought she was somewhat passé,'' he says. ''I think she's gone on to an older audience, and we are really youth-based. But we haven't heard the rest of the album, and there could be other songs that will cut through.''

Among the producers on the new album are Kenneth ''Babyface'' Edmonds, with whom Houston has had some of her biggest hits; Kevin ''Shek'spere'' Briggs and Rob Fusari. If some of their songs meet with a more positive reception, then Whatchulookinat's mediocre performance won't matter in the long run. Persistent tabloid stories about the star shouldn't hurt either.

Airplay Monitor editor Sean Ross says, ''There were rumors about Whitney last time, too, and the thing that silenced them was having a great record.''

He also says she might not be hurt in the long run by Whatchulookinat, because a similar scenario occurred with her last album. When You Believe, a duet with Mariah Carey that Ross calls ''more an event record than a hit record,'' was the first song from Your Love Is My Love, but follow-up Heartbreak Hotel was a smash and the album took off from there.



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