Divas in distress
With new albums due to hit an indifferent marketplace this month, can one-time
superstars Mariah and Whitney reclaim the glitter?
By Dave Ferman
For a long while there in the '90s, everything Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey touched turned to gold. Both pretty, both fodder for the tabloids and both known for big, dramatic ballads, Houston and Carey were practically printing money with such hits as Vision of Love and Miracle.
Houston had started first, of course, with such '80s smashes as Saving All My Love for You and a cover of Dolly Parton's I Will Always Love You. But Carey, too, sold millions and millions of CDs and notched more No. 1 singles than any other solo female artist.
Cut to the present, and everything is different: Thanks to numerous headline-grabbing personal problems and a changing pop music landscape, both Whitney and Mariah need their upcoming CDs to be hits -- big hits -- to re-establish them as artists first and tabloid fodder second.
And there is no guarantee that either will have them.
Call it Duel of the Divas 2002.
Houston's problems have included the frequent legal troubles of husband Bobby Brown, as well as the cancellation of numerous appearances and persistent rumors of drug problems.
And Carey has had to contend with last year's highly publicized emotional breakdown and the failure of the Glitter movie and soundtrack, a bomb so bad that a few months later, her longtime label, EMI Records, gave her a $28 million golden parachute (she has since signed with Island).
While there's no question that both Houston's Just Whitney (due in stores Dec. 10) and Carey's Charmbracelet (Tuesday) will sell to a sizable, hard-core fan base, the long-term performances of both are in question.
"I haven't heard a lot of buzz about either one," says Andy Bowling, product manager for Dallas' Tower Records. "I think there's more of a freak-show curiosity than people eagerly anticipating the music."
These comments are echoed by others, and for good reason. For one thing, Houston and Carey are trying to gain attention at a time when fewer and fewer CDs are being sold in general. Also, the past few weeks have already seen the release of new CDs by country-crossover stars Faith Hill and Shania Twain.
And then there's the J-Lo factor: Already wildly popular as a recording artist and actress, Jennifer Lopez has just released her latest CD, This Is Me . . . Then. With her streetwise-diva persona and a smart blend of ballads and funky urban tracks, Lopez has become a heroine for thousands of young R&B fans.
Bob George, director of the Archives of Contemporary Music, also points out the larger problem facing the two women: At 40 and 32, respectively, Houston and Carey are no longer the hot youngsters they once were. That hurts, especially in a field where young peoples' buying habits are the driving force. Those teens and twentysomethings are listening to Ashanti and Lopez, among others, and looking forward to the upcoming solo debut by Destiny's Child Beyonce Knowles.
"There's a new stage that Whitney and Mariah are moving into," says Mike Katovich, a sociology professor at Texas Christian University. "They're having to share with younger women. In celebrity terms, they're moving into middle age. They can't go back to who they were. And they're going to have to redefine themselves, in a compelling way, to fill a niche."
But can they? In recent years, both women have enlisted younger, urban musicians and producers to update their sound, with varying success. But most recently, Houston has found tough going with younger fans: In September, she released a single called Whatchulookinat, a preview for the upcoming CD and a song clearly aimed at younger fans.
The single bombed, never even reaching the top 20 on the national R&B or pop charts; for an artist of her stature, Whatchulookinat was a major, and ominous, failure.
With both women, Katovich says, there's a sense of "unfinished business" -- both have been so popular, and yet both have seen their careers overshadowed, at least recently, by personal problems.
"I don't know if you'd call it tragic," he says. "It's just sort of weird. And it's kind of sad because the industry is so quick to move on to the next telegenic, appealing person."
Not that their careers are over, of course.
"I think Whitney will do better," Bowling says. "Her train wreck wasn't as bad as Mariah's. And her troubles aren't new. Where Mariah flamed out completely, with Whitney, people are used to it. It's not her, it's Bobby."
But both, says Gini Mascorro of KERA/90.1 FM, are going to have to work hard to regain their popularity.
"We've seen it all from Whitney and Mariah," she says. "The public's moved on. It's going to take a dramatic move to make people care. I can't see Mariah doing really well unless she comes out with the magic single that blows everyone away. I think Whitney is a little more savable -- she has a movie career and more longevity. And more of a following in the gay community.
"But if either one wants to get their careers going, they're going to have to pull out all the stops."
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