You know when you read something like that you're in for a post about celebrities and pop culture, right?So, okay. It's not that I don't enjoy pop culture; by and large - if you've been reading this blog for any time you know that - I am the pop culture guru in this household.
But to my mind there's a skeevy sort of obsession with famous people you can't avoid unless you work hard at dodging the electronic media and limiting your exposure to almost all the other forms of popular press and entertainment. I try, but even I couldn't miss the "news" that Ms. Whitney Elizabeth Houston departed this vale of tears the past Saturday, aged six years younger than I am.
Now in general this blog tries to live by Joe Kugelmass' "Five Rules About Celebrity Deaths", to wit;
1. A blogger is not capable of being “disrespectful” to a dead famous person. That person’s friends and family do not care.In keeping with the first five of these rules I have no real insights or trenchant observations about the passing of Ms. Houston. She seems to have been a rather ordinary woman whose single outstanding qualities appear to have been her pretty face and powerful voice, without particular intellectual or emotional depth, lacking any hint of either greatness or depravity. Without her voice she would no doubt have been simply another nice semi-urban girl from New Jersey.
2. In most cases, famous people who die young will still have managed to have more of “a life” than 99.99% of people who die old.
3. Many people who are publicly sad about a celebrity death had not thought about that celebrity once in the previous twelve months.
4. Some of the things that lead to celebrity deaths are, in fact, not relevant to the lives of ordinary folks (e.g. Michael Jackson’s personal drug doctor).
5. Public mourning is affected by ridiculous, irrelevant factors. For example, the bad economy increased mourning for Steve Jobs. People are more grieved by Whitney Houston’s death than they were by Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s death because her songs were more radio-friendly and sentimental.
So it is her voice that ensures the emotional glurge regarding her death.
And for me, at least, her voice is perhaps the single thing that I truly dislike about the woman, and the only real observation of any worth that I can think to make about the woman now that she is sure to be enshrined in the pop culture pantheon.
First, let me qualify myself; I've sung publicly, not professionally, but in both an organized choral group and as a soloist. You wouldn't pay for my solo singing - at least, I hope you wouldn't - but I have a decent amateur bass-baritone and know my way around both classical and popular music. I've been known to rock the house with "Wild Colonial Boy" when I've had a few. So; I can sing, a bit. And as a result I have some very definite ideas about what makes a song work.
Okay. So, here's our gal the late Ms. Houston tearing into perhaps her best known pop song, "I Will Always Love You" at the 1994 Grammys.The performance is...well, it's what Houston did. The quivering vibrato, the swooping, breathy phrasing, and of course the "big moment" - it comes with the key change at 3:19 in the video - the pause, the breath, and then the soaring blare as Houston's voice rises and swells in a cresting wave of throbbing emotion. That was her style, and although she wasn't the only singer of her era who used it she might have been the best known and the most influential.
That belting style is now nearly inescapable when you hear power pop sung in public. You hear now it every time you turn on "American Idol" and any one of it's many imitators, or encounter one of the many pop-song belters trained in the post-Whitney Era. It's as if every single jazz and pop vocalist between 1950 and 1980 had been instantly turned into Barbra Streisand.
But...here's the thing. Check out the lyrics to "I Will Always Love You":
"If I should stay,Got it? Is that a sad song, or what? "Bittersweeet memories"? "We both know I'm not what you need"? This sucker is about loss, my God; heartbreak, the death of a precious love, desolation, the long, slow, agonizing draught of bitter gall you know you will drink the rest of your life as the one you can never forget recedes in the rear-view mirror.
I would only be in your way.
So I'll go, but I know
I'll think of you ev'ry step of the way.
And I will always love you.
I will always love you.
You, my darling you.
Bittersweet memories that is all I'm taking with me.
So, goodbye. Please, don't cry.
We both know I'm not what you, you need.
And I will always love you.
I will always love you.
I hope life treats you kind
And I hope you have all you've dreamed of.
And I wish to you, joy and happiness.
But above all this, I wish you love.
And I will always love you..."
This is fucking tragedy, man.
But Houston's version - and all the other belters' that have followed her - makes a kind of joke out of that. The emotional throb and gush, the soaring finale...she's not standing there heartsick and grieving that she will always love you; she's hurling her challenge to the skies - she WILL always love you, goddammit, and she's not ashamed who knows it.
Here's the woman who wrote and first sang this song, Dolly Parton, doing the tune exactly twenty years earlier than the Grammys:Excuse me for being partial, but for my money that's how you put over a hearbreaking song; simple, clean, her voice as clear and sharp as a winter night and as crushingly empty. There's no strength in Parton's version, no power, no hope. She knows she has lost everything, and the sweet clarity in her voice makes the pain of that loss utterly unbearable.
But you hear much more of Whitney than Dolly in pop singing today. So while I am sure that there are those who were fond of Ms. Houston, or loved her, I cannot and do not pretend to share in their grief.
Since I was not a particular fan of the woman's vocal stylings what was lost to me by her death was only her voice and her vocal style, and since that part of her leaves me somewhere between indifferent and mildly irritated to mourn, or pretend to mourn, or, indeed, to do more than to note her passing with a rather irked shrug would be to violate the Five Rules.
Therefore, I will do no more.Sorry, Whitney, but...meh.