Whitney's New Look...
Variety: New 'Look' for Whitney Houston
Album crafted as year's biggest comeback story
By STEVE CHAGOLLAN
looking to fashion a narrative for Whitney Houston on the eve of the release
of her first album of new material in seven years need look no further than
the songs on "I Look to You."
With titles like "Million Dollar Bill," "Nothin' but Love," "Like I Never
Left" and "I Didn't Know My Own Strength," themes of undying love,
unyielding faith, triumph over adversity and defiance against the "doubters
and the haters" point to an album (to be released Monday by Arista)
custom-crafted to frame Houston as the year's biggest comeback story.
It won't be an easy task. Her last mainstream studio effort, 2002's "Just
Whitney," peaked at No. 9 on Billboard's Top 200 current album chart,
selling some 730,000 units. By contrast, Houston's last No. 1 album, the
soundtrack for "The Bodyguard," topped the chart for 20 weeks in 1992-93 and
sold 42 million discs, according to Gary Trust, charts manager for
What "Just Whitney" didn't have was the careful, nurturing guidance of Clive
Davis, who signed Houston to Arista in 1983 and has been behind her most
successful recordings. Davis coaxed Houston out of semi-retirement with a
phone call 3½ yeas ago. "I just said, 'It's time,' " Davis told Daily
Variety. "I was getting so much mail literally from all over the world.
People wanted their Whitney. They missed her; they missed what she stood
for, and I just relayed that to her."
As he did with her first
album -- "Whitney Houston" (1985), which topped the Billboard 200 chart for
14 consecutive weeks, making it the bestselling debut album by a female
artist -- Davis spent more than 2½ years compiling material for the new
package designed to best showcase her talents. "What we have tried to stand
for is great songs done by a great vocalist," he said. "If it ain't broke,
don't fix it."
Songwriters and producers on the disc include proven hitmakers like Alicia
Keys, R. Kelly, Diane Warren and David Foster. It includes a mix of uptempo
numbers, power ballads, dance grooves, the proverbial duet and even a
classic cover, Leon Russell's "A Song for You." The album has been the
centerpiece of a carefully calibrated campaign by the label dating back to
June, when a timer on Houston's official website, Whitneyhouston.com, began
counting the days, hours and minutes leading up to the album's launch. It
could also be seen as the countdown to the relaunch of Houston's career.
Despite her chart-busting success in the 1980s and '90s, Houston's star has
dimmed in the new millennium amid rumors of substance abuse, flighty
behavior and a tumultuous marriage to singer Bobby Brown that ended in
divorce in 2006.The slow build for "I Look to You" began in earnest at Clive
Davis' annual pre-Grammy party in February, when Houston followed perfs by
Barry Manilow, Jennifer Hudson and the Kings of Leon with a closing medley
in front of a packed house of pop royalty and rising stars, including Paul
McCartney, Prince, Quincy Jones, Babyface, Taylor Swift, Rihanna and Katy
"She came on after midnight," Davis recalled, in front of a room full of
"gilt-edged, class-A celebrities. Everybody stayed." Jamie Foxx reportedly
shouted, "She killed it!"
In July, Davis hosted a trio of listening sessions for the new album in
London, New York and L.A. that were designed to reintroduce the singer to
the public. Invitees included "tastemakers, industry people, radio sales,
critics and music writers," said Scott Seviour, senior VP marketing and
artist development, RCA Music Group. As at Davis' party, the celeb quotient
was high at all three events, including Martha Stewart, Dionne Warwick and
Diane Sawyer (to whom Houston uttered the infamous "crack is whack" remark
in a 2002 interview) in New York and Stevie Wonder and Jane Fonda in L.A.
Two singles were released on the airwaves last week, "I Look to You,"
targeting the urban marketplace, and "Million Dollar Bill," sent to Top 40
radio. There was also a free giveaway of the title track to anyone who
visited Whitneyhouston.com last week between Tuesday and Friday. On Monday,
the album became available as an official stream on Houston's website.
Online previews of the album have been mixed but largely positive, with the
L.A Times describing Houston's vocals as "more brawny than soaring these
days." USA Today declared the disc "worth the wait."
Seviour said the label plans on shipping 600,000-700,000 units to retailers.
"If this was five years ago, we'd probably be shipping 1.3 million records,"
he said. "But because digital is such a variable, and it's unlimited, the
(shipping) number doesn't look that big." Since both Seviour and Davis see
the album as loaded with singles potential, digital downloads could make up
for less-than-stellar disc sales.
With No. 1 debuts over the course of 2009 mostly in the low six-digit range,
industry watchers are keeping a close eye on the album's opening salvo.
Eminem's "Relapse" has been the only album to breach a half million in sales
(608,000) during the calendar year, with U2 the next closest at 484,000,
according to Trust. The last artist to top a million was Lil Wayne in June
2008, said Trust. There are currently no plans for Houston to tour, and the
label, with the help of PMK-HBH, is limiting Houston's exposure to a few key
TV appearances for now. Houston will perform Sept. 1 on "Good Morning
America," which has been trumpeting the singer's appearance for weeks, and
she'll also be on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," which will devote the entire
hour to the singer on Sept. 14.
"I'm sure that she will have more live engagements," said Davis, "but I'm
more interested in her doing these shows. When she does television
engagements, you're talking about reaching millions of people, not 15,000.
She's really more akin to Streisand than she is a rock artist. You're not
going to get Whitney Houston doing one-nighters."
Questions regarding Houston's health and stamina, or whether she has
anything to prove, were brushed aside by Davis. "I'm not trying to sugarcoat
anything," he assured, "but she did speak at length at those presentations.
And don't forget she did perform at my Grammy party last February."
As to whether Houston's career can thrive in today's pop paradigm, Davis --
who has a hand in reviving and reinventing the careers of Carlos Santana and
Rod Stewart -- underscored Houston's timeless appeal. "She's in the
tradition of Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin,
Streisand -- there are just a handful who are the voices of all time. Plus,
she looks great."
26 AUGUST 2009