Whitney Houston - Pop's New Queen hide
In the last three months, Whitney Houston, the 22-year-old singer from Newark, has grown from pop music's new kid on the block into a phenomenon for the history books. The facts speak for themselves. Miss Houston's debut album has logged more than 60 weeks on Billboard's Pop Album chart, with nine of those weeks spent at No. 1. The album has sold more than 5.2 million copies, including 900,000 in April alone. It has also yielded four top-10 singles, three of which have reached No. 1 on Billboard's pop singles chart.
"Whitney Houston" (Arista 8212, LP, cassette and compact disk) is now the best-selling album by a black female vocalist in pop music history, having surpassed Tina Turner's "Private Dancer" (1984) and Donna Summer's "Bad Girls" (1979), each of which sold over four million. The record has also sold more than twice as much as any album by Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick or Diana Ross.
Given today's trend-crazed pop climate, in which an iconoclastically saucy image is often a key to blockbuster popularity, the phenomenal success of Miss Houston's album is something of an anomaly. It was their youthful sexual defiance as much as their musical talents that helped to make Prince and Madonna the hot young sensations of 1984 and '85. And even now, their long-term musical significance remains to be determined. Miss Houston's success is probably less dependent on image-making than that of any other young contemporary pop star. A professional model, she happens to be very good-looking, but her appeal is more that of a traditional all-American girl than a sex symbol. Her fondness for inspirational love songs, a stage show that emphasizes the family gospel tradition, and her wholesome music videos all bespeak a dignified reserve and cool professionalism.
At the same time, Miss Houston's musical worth is already beyond question. An extraordinary singer whose flexible, rangy pop-gospel voice has a core of steel, she is the heir apparent to the female soul tradition of Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, and her first cousin Dionne Warwick. Artistically, her debut album is a personal triumph over material that, generally speaking, hews to conservative pop formulas. Most pop-rock albums that sell several million have some kind of conceptual unity in their material. But not Miss Houston's. The record was made with four different producers - Jermaine Jackson, Kashif, Michael Masser and Narada Michael Walden, all of whom are commercially proven craftsmen of opulent pop-soul. Three of its 10 cuts are love duets. "Take Good Care of My Heart" and "Nobody Loves Me Like You Do" team Miss Houston with Jermaine Jackson, and on "Hold Me" she sings with Teddy Pendergrass.
The model for these duets is the genteel lovebird style popularized in the 1970's by Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway and subsequenlty emulated by many other duos. Eschewing the earthier, call-and-response format of more gospel-oriented soul singing, this sugar-coated approach evokes inspirational romance, with the two voices diffused by echo and wrapped in lustrous instrumentation.
One of the hallmarks of Miss Houston's singing is a continuing tension between a poised self-assurance that one would normally associate with singers 10 years her senior, and a compressed youthful exuberance. This tug between decorum and a lurking excitement helps to lend an emotional edge to catchy, lightweight songs like "How Will I Know?," which is patterned after several Pointer Sisters hits, and "Saving All My Love for You," an old-fashioned rock and roll ballad by the pop veterans Michael Masser and Gerry Goffin.
"Greatest Love of All," written by Mr. Masser with the late Linda Creed, is the album's centerpiece and boasts Miss Houston's stateliest performance. Originally recorded by George Benson for "The Greatest," a film biography of Muhammad Ali, the record reached No. 24 on the pop charts nine years ago. Miss Houston sings it with a forceful directness that gives its message of self-worth an astounding resonance and conviction. "No matter what they take from me, they can't take away my dignity," goes the lyric's most striking line. Sung by Miss Houston, it becomes a compelling assertion of black pride, family loyalty and spiritual devotion, all at once.
The resilience and metallic fiber of Miss Houston's voice suggest the pop-gospel equivalent of an Olympic athlete. She combines and streamlines the accomplishments of her predecessors, dispensing with the decorative ornamentation that many gospel-trained singers have traditionally brought to pop music. Along with physical endurance, she projects a strong, steady emotional involvement with the sentiments of a song, rarely personalizing the details, preferring instead to make each song a balanced, whole emotional statement.
Miss Houston's singing doesn't yet have a signature as distinctive as any of her role models. She lacks Aretha Franklin's jazzy sass, Gladys Knight's embracing warmth, Tina Turner's raw energy, Diana Ross's kittenish sleekness, Deniece Williams's delicacy, and the endless dramatic reserves of Patti La Belle and Jennifer Holliday. Rather she is a composite of all these singers - a refined belter who wields power by rationing out her enormous resources very carefully. Remarkably, her album only reveals about two-thirds of her vocal power, for it allows only faint glimpses of an explosive gospel fervor that she unleashes suddenly and to devastating effect in concert.
"Greatest Love of All" is the last single that will be culled from Miss Houston's album. She is currently back in the studio making her second record, scheduled for September release. For all its strengths, one senses that her debut album merely scratched the surface of a massive talent that is still in the process of formation. Of all the overnight sensations pop music has produced so far this decade, Whitney Houston stands the best chance of being as big a star 10 years from now as she is today.