The Selling of Whitney Houston hide
Her second album is a commercial success, but a megadisappointment in other ways
Can Whitney Houston do it again? Or is she just last year's fashion, a glitzy pop princess soon to be relegated to the back of the closet with crinoline petticoats and ankle-length skirts? Her first album sold 14 million copies worldwide, spun off a string of four top singles and won a Grammy and a truckload of other chunks of glittery statuary. Was that sheer talent or beginner's luck? Like so many stars with megaplatinum albums behind them, can Whitney beat the sophomore slump?
The questions come easier than the answers. How well she has done the second time out depends in part on whether you are counting bucks or measuring musical ingenuity. The ex-model with the small waist and giant voice has cut a new record that is another astonishing commercial success -- but a megadisappointment in other ways. Titled simply "Whitney," the long-awaited album has put the singer in the record books once more. It made its debut on the Billboard charts at No. 1, a first for a female vocalist. But it is unadventurous in the way it uses Whitney's powers, and most of its songs are stupefyingly banal.
At 23, Whitney commands such a huge following that the tough reviews the record has received can hurt little more than her feelings -- she's operating in the commercial stratosphere of a Barbra Streisand. "A wide demographic" is how Clive Davis, president of Arista Records, explains her big sales. What he means is that unlike most pop divas, Whitney hasn't become imprisoned in one format; she not only sells records to teenagers but to their parents. She changes her persona as readily as her hairdo, from prom queen to torch singer to soul sister -- and that's just on side one of the record. She possesses a great voice and great looks. But her huge success also depends heavily on marketing magic. "Any time anybody hits this big, it's the result of timing, as well as talent, as well as luck, as well as a promotional push," says Billboard columnist Paul Grein.
Whitney's second album tugs at the coattails of her first. "Houston became a celebrity above her music," says Larkin Arnold, an entertainment lawyer and executive producer of Michael Jackson's "Off the Wall" and "Thriller" albums. "If you're supposed to be hip or cool or down, you've got to have Whitney Houston, and I think that momentum carried to the second album." The public had barely heard a peep from Whitney in several months. "We intentionally sought a waiting period," says Davis. "We didn't want a saturation of the market." So great was the draw that in the first three weeks of the release, more than 2 million copies of the album were shipped in the United States.
The maestro: The most important key to the second record's success, according to Houston's manager Eugene Harvey, was "the extraordinary care that went into the selection of the songs." Clive Davis was the maestro, as he was on the first album. He personally assembled a wider range of songs to show off Whitney's versatile talents -- and to keep her from becoming pigeonholed as an adult contemporary singer or an R&B belter. "It was a conscious decision, and a very smart one," says Billboard's Grein. For instance, the first single from the first album was a soulful ballad; this time it's the up-tempo tune "I Wanna Dance With Somebody." (The song has crossed over to top the adult contemporary charts as well as the pop charts; it is No. 2 on the black charts.) Besides mellow ballads, Davis also chose a saloon song for the album, "Just the Lonely Talking Again," and a show tune, "I Know Him So Well," from the musical "Chess." That last song is the best -- a duet that pairs Houston's clear, youthful tones with the wonderfully earthy voice of her mother, the gospel and backup singer Cissy Houston.
Whitney's virtuosity and potential are as evident as ever, and her voice has a greater richness than before. Still, the new cuts fail to show much range; the paint-by-numbers quality of the album's production makes the songs sound too much alike. Technically, Whitney knows all the right moves -- when to soar, when to whisper and, on a line like "I like the animal way you move," when to growl. But the performance sounds more studied than felt. When she sings "Love is a contact sport," there's no real sweat.
The question now is whether Whitney Houston will settle for becoming the Brooke Shields of pop, a good, all-American girl in womanly guise. Coming from a cozy "Leave It to Beaver" family, she loves pizza and her mom's cooking, tennis and watching TV. She's close to her parents -- her mother coached her in vocal technique and took her to recording sessions when she was just a kid; her father, John, a former executive in the city government of Newark, N.J., manages her business affairs. Whitney doesn't turn up in the tabloids with a brawling boyfriend or in the midst of family feuds. Writers covering her are reduced to scanning her album-liner notes, where her copious thank-yous -- to everyone from the Almighty to her two pussycats -- read like high-school-yearbook dedications. People describe her as "wholesome" and "refined." The compliments are impressive for a young woman in the music business. The problem is that when all the songs she belts out are about passion, she still sounds underneath like a girl who never stayed out past curfew.
Pop syrup: Some people have asked whether Whitney is at the wheel of her own career -- or how much she leaves the driving to Clive Davis, the impresario who produced Barry Manilow and revived the flagging careers of Aretha Franklin and Whitney's cousin, Dionne Warwick, has closely supervised every aspect of Houston's recording career. He chose the songs for her first album, sticking mostly to middle-of-the-road pop syrup and snagging such big names as Teddy Pendergrass and Jermaine Jackson to sing duets with her. He also scrupulously oversaw the carefully glossed production of each cut and decided which singles should be released. Davis insists that he and Whitney "work like a partnership" and review potential material together. "What's been terrific is that our tastes have been unusually simpatico," says Davis. "I've never asked her to do a song she doesn't feel."
His savvy extends, of course, beyond the studio. He and Whitney's managers are highly selective about mass-media exposure. Though Arista reportedly spent more than $ 2 million promoting the first album, Whitney didn't turn up much on the talk shows or give a lot of lengthy interviews in the national press. Her few live television appearances, therefore, packed a big punch. Last summer on the Fourth of July, for example, she sang her fourth hit single, "Greatest Love of All," on a TV special with the Statue of Liberty in the background; in September she performed on the MTV Awards show; early this year she appeared on the American Music Awards and on the Grammys. Total audience for the four shows, according to her manager: 100 million people.
Everybody knows that Whitney's got legs that don't stop -- they were in full display on the back of her first album cover. It is harder to say how strong the legs of the new record will be. "The odds are that it won't sell 8 million in the U.S., like the first one," says Grein. "But at 4 or 5 million, it would still be a success." Davis says the album will produce at least six singles. The second single, "Didn't We Almost Have It All," will be released later this month.
Movie offers: Whitney will bolster sales with a 42-city U.S. tour, which she launched last weekend in Tampa. She's also become a big hit in Europe and Australia. "The next step in her career plan," says Eugene Harvey, "is to break South America." Meanwhile, movie offers are being dangled in front of this photogenic queen of the hop. There's talk of her doing the Deena role in the film of "Dreamgirls," and her manager mentions the possibility of something with Robert De Niro.
Before Whitney hits Hollywood, will she try to break out of her carefully wrapped pop package? Even Davis may see a need for Houston to get some more grit into the molasses. He speaks of seeking "fresh input" for her next album from new producers such as "a Quincy Jones" or "a Jam and Lewis." (Just look at what Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis did to put some sizzle into Janet Jackson's last release.) Whitney herself, who first began singing as a child in church, has spoken of going back to her roots and recording a gospel album. Whatever route she takes, if she's got something extra beneath that glossy surface, it wouldn't hurt to let them show.