THE CRUCIFIXION OF WHITNEY HOUSTON...SUPERSTAR
We're looking at you,
Whitney-and here's what we see. An open letter to a diva.
Dear Whitney: Let me tell you something: back in the day when real singers put their hits on wax and Bettye (that's my momma) kept her only daughter locked up in the house to avoid the funkiness that came when teens were allowed to run amok, you, the record player and my hairbrush gave me life. Can't tell you how many Friday nights I tucked myself down in the basement, stereo blasting, pretending I could sang like Whitney.
When you asked "How Will I Know?" I felt you girl-I was a novice at love, but I knew I wanted it, and you made it clear that not even the prettiest girls could figure out what the guys were thinking. And when you promised that man you were saving all your love for him? Lord, that's when I sang the loudest: Though I tried to resist/being last on your list/But no other maaaaan's gonna dooooo damn, that was my song. The words. Your voice. The emotion. Prince was a bad mutha, and Madonna made us think we were actually cute in those lace and mini getups, but you were the only big-voiced diva who was young and pretty and, like, cool. We all wanted to be you, girl.
But um, today? For real? Well, we still love you and all. But you're starting to feel like the cousin we care for but don't necessarily want at the barbeque-the one with all the issues who shows up to the house late, loopy and loud. I mean the Diane Sawyer fiasco, all the profanity in the infamous New York City radio interview-and the strange behavior on and off the stage, the tired "Whatchoolookinat" single, the weak Just Whitney sales. They've all got us questioning our loyalty to you and wondering whether we're really cool with your new "this is me-accept it" thing.
I'm not certain we were ever clear about who you really were, anyway, at least not at first. Sure we got bits of the basics: Cissy's daughter. Dionne's cousin. Called Aretha, "Aunt Ree." Sweet. Virginal. Princess. all the buzz words Clive Davis, then Arista chief, needed the deejays to cling to as they justified pushing your distinctly soulful music up the pop (read: white) charts. Master strategy--worked like a charm, didn't it ? By the time you showed up on MTV's rotation jumping up and down in that tight, bubblegum pink minidress, flinging that big blonde 'do and talking about how you wanted to dance with somebody, we started cockin' eyebrows and wondering who exactly you were looking to dance with. Sure, sure, we appreciated your renditions of "The Greatest Love of All" and "For the Love of You," but clearly something was amiss: you were being elevated to that rare air where, skin color be damned, white folks were gonna love ya. Small pedestal, but Michael was on it. Tina Turner, too. And for a minute there, you were as well. In fact, you were so colorless that America even got past the fact that you and Kevin Costner--Kevin Costner, for goodness sakes--were all hugged up in 1992's The Bodyguard. This was one of the biggest onscreen interracial pairings since 1957, when white audiences worked themselves into a tizzy over the black/white romance between Dorothy Dandridge and Curt Jurgens in Tamango.
But that was a hot minute. The moment you put on that $40,000 dress and said "I Do" to the pelvis-thrusting bad boy Bobby Brown, who you ordained "The original King of R&B," one thing became crystal to your pop fans" Whitney may not exactly be the good, clean Negro gal we thought she was. Of course, for black stars, white adulation is a bit like bad health insurance: it ain't there when you need it most. Suddenly, your true fan base got smaller and darker.
The choices you made after that? They had a black girl written all over them. There you were in 1995, setting the big screen on fire as Savannah, the heroine in the hugely popular film version of Waiting to Exhale, one of the most well-read contemporary novels ever authored by a black woman. We lined up in droves, rounded up out sista circles, plunked down our cash and helped you usher in a new era of black film-making by setting box office records for the little $15 million movie that could. Entertainment Weekly, dumbfounded by the film's success, tried to suggest that it was the support of white women that buoyed box office receipts to $67 million. We knew better, but Hollywood--and you--were so confident of your star power that, a year later, Touchtone Pictures plunked down $20 million for The Preacher's Wife, a black spin on the 1947 Cary Grant classic The Bishop's Wife, replete with big-time director Penny Marshall at the helm. This time, though, hardly anybody showed up---although it was enough, at least, to recoup the ducats the studio shelled out to make the flick. Definitely not your white fans. Somewhere in La La Land, there must be an out-of-work exec still kicking himself for forgetting one simple truth: no matter how much mainstream America might love you--and your Preacher's Wife co-star Denzel--they weren't ready to spend their hard-earned money to watch a black love story, no matter how pretty the stars. Even if that star was you.
Perhaps, especially because it was you.
See, Whitney, the thing is, America accepted you into its fold and blessed you with the perks that come with it: mega-dollar movie deals, glamorous Atlantic City and Las Vegas show dates, soaring ballads that sell millions and an unspoken requirement that you follow the rules: Rule No. 1: Remember, you're not a race woman. Rule No. 2: You don't go off and do things that remind people that you aspire to be a race woman. Rule No. 3 and, perhaps, the most important of all: Be careful about marrying within your face--and especially choosing someone who's outside of the fold.
And you couldn't possibly get farther out of the fold than "The Original King of R&B." He's a rebel black man and imagined for you. He's mannerless and crude. And despite the headlines, the tabloid gossip, the countless perp walks, the many allegations of infidelity, you stuck by him--defended him, even. Some might venture to call it black love, born of devotion, nurturing and mettle. This is not sleek Jaguar love, but Mack-turck love, built for long-hauling and to flatten every single solitary obstacle thrown your way: racism classism, sexism, and yes, people getting up in your business. As you told Diane Sawyer in the ABC interview, : You just never pictured Bobby Brown and Whitney Houston together. Who did ? Love is where you find it and I found it in him, and he found it in me." This is not simply "Stand by Your Man" love--it's go-out-and-fight-a-war-with-your-man-love.
I'm not saying I agree with your decision, Whitney. I mean, come on--Bobby's prerogative seemed to be getting arrested about every few months. You gained a reputation for not showing up for events (remember the Academy Awards?) that you'd been paid big money for. When you did bother to show up, we winced our way through your appearances. But still we never cut you off because we had grown to love you like family. You accept their faults, say a few prayers that God delivers them from whatever chokehold the devil's done put them in and hope they can pull things together. Why else do you think so many fans still wanted Mike Tyson to put Lennox Lewis on his back, despite the fact that Mike's a mess of a tabloid cliché ? We're a forgiving people. How else to explain looking past Michael Jackson's grill to bounce to "Butterflies" ?
But out love for you is tough love, girl. As a source in the music industry who was once one of your biggest supporters states, "I think Whitney is a major disappointment. Here is the worst fall from grace...It's just so painful to watch."
See, the only thing we ask in return for our unconditional support is that you use what God gave you. We have a disdain for talented people who waste their craft--who don't pay it the proper attention, who refuse to nurture and feed it. Our beef with you, Whitney, is that you just don't seem to be paying much attention to the work anymore. The voice isn't as strong, the songs nowhere near as inspired. And we know that somewhere in there, your real purity--the lioness love for making great music that directly touched our need to hear it--has remained unblemished by slow record sales, humiliating headlines, intrusive interviewers and even your own missteps. Our faith in your gifts is unshaken. As a former publicist at Arista says, "I think she's a phenomenal talent...I wish her all the best, and I know she's going to make a huge comeback."
So you ask us what we're looking at? Well, dear, we're looking straight at you, waiting for you to sang again. Do that, Whitney and we'll show you the greatest love of all.
NEWSFILE: 22 APRIL 2003
RETURN TO ARTICLES ARCHIVE
|n a v i g a t e c l a s s i c w h i t n e y|
www.classicwhitney.com - Copyright Notice & Disclaimer