Sunday, February 12, 2012

Thinking about Whitney Houston

In the way the smell of a dead antelope brings carrion birds out from the forest onto the plains, the news of Whitney Houston's death has attracted Paul Gambaccini and Pete Waterman into the BBC News studio.

At least their arrival took some of the stress off the early responders.

Gambo and Waterman can construct a eulogy from absolutely nothing.

If the drummer from Howler fell under a tank during an ill-starred visit to the Bovington Museum, Gambo and Waterman would be able to fill five minutes with figures and significance. It's what they do. The rest of us might struggle.

The surprise, though, was how BBC News was struggling before they managed to squeeze into a room with a camera and an uplink.

When Jackson died, it was pretty easy for the generalists to have something to say - Thriller, Rockin' Robin, comeback tours. You could skirt around the kiddie-fiddling and addictions.

Houston has sold tonnes of records - the biggest-selling female artist, announces Gambo, looking up from his slide-rule. So why was it hard for the news team to bring a balance to the bit where they weren't mopping up the Brown marriage, and the brown?

Gambaccini, mic-ed up and settled in, trotted out an explanation of Houston's style. Melisma. Or what - I think it was the NME - once described as "utterly undisciplined vocal gymnastics".

The "undisciplined" was unfair - Houston's style was something she was clearly more in control of than much else in her life. But the gymnastics was spot-on. And it was the gymnastics which is prancing about on the floor waving ribbons rather than the sort that uses bars and springboards and horses.

Effectively, a lot of showing off disconnected from the need to relate to anything else. Houston's songs might as well have all been a capella, as she was out the front, doing her thing in the foreground, rather than working with the music.

A capella? No, she could have just had the introduction, to announce to the audience what song was going to be bent to demonstrate her skills.

Impressive enough skills, but utterly, utterly soulless, too. I think this is what makes her feel distant; a Whitney Houston song is a bit like reading computer code in a language you're not familiar with - you can see that it is crafted, but, as code, it does nothing to you. Nothing for you.

Drop the code it into a machine, and it can work.

Plop a bit of Houston onto a soundtrack of a movie, and - oh, it's about love. That sort of makes sense.

Stick her bellowing I'm Every Woman onto the start of an Oprah show, and it does a kind of empowering thing. That makes sense.

Pump I Wanna Dance With Somebody into a hen party, and carnage ensues. That make a kind of sense.

But just take the music out, and listen to those notes being shuffled around, and what have got? It's like that opening sequence to Emma Thompson's sketch show; the feeling that you've been given a role of watching a very clever person being very clever. All you are meant to do is applaud.

Compare Dolly Parton's I Will Always Love You with Houston's cover. Houston's is more vocally accomplished, anyone can see that.

But Parton's version is a woman telling a lover that her love will always be there, even as she's leaving. She lives the song. She sings the words. She tells the story.

Houston sings the same words, but she's having so much fun playing with them, there's no story. No lover is conjured, there's no hand being held fats and allowed to drop. Sure, you can bung in clips of The Bodyguard into the video which will do the job, and when people buy the record and take it home, they can picture that, right?

But Houston's performance should be doing that. Instead, she's off showing off her vocal range. If there was someone being dumped when she was singing the song, it's the equivalent of being dumped by somebody who doesn't make eye contact and who insists on doing it in Latin.

Her version of I Will Always Love You is actually all "I", no "You".

And as Waterman and Ganmbo both revealed, part of Houston's legacy is to have raised a generation of female singers who think that the melisma is a short-cut to emotion. That to try and convince a song is full of real feelings, all you need to do is skeeter up and down the scale like a monkey on a piano.

Houston could pull of the trick, but never nailed the problem. In her wake came a bunch of singers who couldn't even do the trick well. Look at Aguilera's eyes roaming the room during the Lady Marmalade video - "is this is, mom? Have I got it?"

Waterman reveals that during Pop Idol they had to ban people from trying to do Houston songs. Ostensibly, there were too many doing them, but you can just imagine a room of people without Houston's technical skill trying to pull it off. Like a bunch of First Aiders at a train crash deciding they'd try to do the amputations.

I think even Whitney Houston fans know this is true, too. Many of the Twitter tributes this morning (ignoring those from people who have suddenly turned out to be her biggest fans) have been about when the songs were playing, and not the performances themselves.

And maybe this is why the early commentators on the News had struggled so much. Houston gave great soundtrack, and had technical skills you couldn't argue with. But not much warmth, not much feeling. You could admire the plumbing, but plumbing isn't much to love.


4 comments:

Robin Carmody said...

I agree with most of this, but would cite her late 90s output ("My Love is Your Love" especially) as an exception.

Disappointed that few have cited the importance of her singing the Star Spangled Banner at the Super Bowl during the Gulf War - as a moment when Middle America, in time of war, related to and identified with a black woman singing that song, it might have been a step on the road to Obama's victory. But it was also the beginning of the end, in that it forced on her impossible standards which could only drive her to the opposite extreme.

Anonymous said...

"a generation of FEMALE singers" what, there are no males doing this sort of thing? Reeves and Mortimer already parodied the numerous boy bands who adopt this vocal style, with their 'Boystory II" sketch. I agree with Robin re: the nineties stuff.

simon h b said...

@robin
The late 90s stuff I'd still argue suffered from a disjoint, it's just the music that she wasn't connecting with was of a higher standard.

@anonymous
True; there are men as well as women who do it - but it seems in a female artist it's taken as a sign of authenticity more than in a male artist.

Dave Heasman said...

She always reminded me of Shirley Bassey. But do you remember the first Nelson Mandela concert, about 1985/6, where it was freezing and she came out & sang in sweater & jeans? And looked better than anyone else on earth?

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