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Whitney Earns Respect hide

WHEN Whitney Houston's new album - her first in three years - was recently unveiled at a private listening party at New York's upscale Regency Hotel, the assembled throng of 200 music industry types could have been forgiven for thinking they were at a business seminar rather than a celebratory function.

As guests filed in to the hotel's grand ballroom, they were instructed to sit on chairs arranged lecture-room style, be quiet and listen to the record track by track. President of Whitney's recording label, Arista's Clive Davis, insisted that there be no conversation while the record played, and he introduced each song with a lengthy string of superlatives.

Ninety minutes later guests were permitted to swarm the open bar.

Normally at such events, guests swarm the bar upon arrival and continue to swarm the bar throughout the party as the feted record spins repeatedly in the background. If anyone's interested in a closer listen, they simply take a copy of the record home.

Whitney, however, is apparently different.

That she's big business is obvious: her first two albums sold 30 millions copies worldwide; her tours sell out worldwide.

But the underlying message at the ever-so-formal party was to do with respect. Whitney, certified superstar, commands respect.

"She's 27, a multi-millionaire, a giant in the industry, an extraordinary talent, so shut-up, sit-up and listen-up good," was the tone from Arista Records at the party.

People have been making fun of Whitney Houston ever since she burst on to the music scene in 1985 with her debut album.

Critics have harped that she has no hand in her career - or records - and dismiss her as an airhead, albeit a glorious-voiced airhead.

For her part, Whitney, a former model, never bothered to go out her way to alter the perception.

Even with the release of her third album, I'm Your Baby Tonight, Whitney hasn't changed that image.

While her self-aggrandizing contemporaries are singing about how the world has gone to hell and isn't coming back, Whitney just wants to dance with somebody who loves her.

In interviews, when asked about the economy, the Persian Gulf situation or some other political topic, Whitney simply flashes her "well-gee-I-never-thought-about-that" smile.

Why intellectualize when she really just wants to sing uplifting songs that make people happy?

Her appeal lies within that honesty and lack of pretence.

Whitney recognized her destiny, she says, as a 12-year-old when she was performing her first solo before the New Hope Baptist Church in her hometown of Newark, New Jersey.

"I was so afraid, so scared, that I closed my eyes and just began to sing," she recounts. "When I opened my eyes, it was like the Holy Spirit had come to the church. People were just shouting and happy and praising God.

"I started to think then, 'If this is what I can do with what You've given me, then I'm going to do it all the way. I'm going to be a singer’.†Her talent was harnessed with help from a formidable trio - her mother, soul star Cissy Houston, first-cousin Dionne Warwick and family friend Aretha ("Auntie Ree") Franklin. HER massive white appeal has, and continues to be, a source of criticism among black music critics in America.

It's criticism which today still has Whitney perplexed.

"Black? What's Black?" she said in a recent interview. I don't know how to sing Black - I don't know how to sing white, either. I know how to sing. Music is a color to me." She has been similarly criticized for not pursuing her musical roots.

Obviously a child of soul, she elected instead to steer into the mainstream. And for that she makes no apologies.

"I love soul," she said. "But does it make a record and does it have worldwide appeal? And what happens after that? Longevity - that's what it's all about. If you're going to have a long career, there's a certain way to do it, and I did it that way. I'm not ashamed of it." With the title track from I'm Your Baby Tonight riding high on charts worldwide, Whitney appears to be going the distance.

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