Tuesday, February 14, 2012

So Emotional

I really try and avoid the horrible celebriphilia that runs mad through everything in American pop culture.

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.

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.
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.

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.

Here's why.

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,
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..."
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.

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.


Leon said...

I admit my bias against country music prevents me from enjoying Dolly's version as much as I prefer. Her more passive and sad version is more appropriate than Houston's belting out - but god help me I like Houston's better. Another secret musical shame.

I was a bit surprised at her death but at the same time not surprised. Her struggles with addiction were well known and this was an expected finally. I think we can easily draw up a list of 'celebrities' that are going down the same path.

In Houston's case, it is sad to me as it seems a waste of potential - compared to so many 'celebrities' she actually had talent. Fame was good for her career but like MJ, too much fame led to her death. I think these megastars need a sassy friend who occasionally slaps them and tells them to get their head out of their ass.

FDChief said...

Leon: I think the problem is that for a certain personality the wealth and fawning is nearly impossible to resist. Maybe a LOT of people. Whitney wasn't the first and won't be the last.

I do think you should listen to the two renditions again.

The Parton version isn't really "country" in the twangy-gitar-yee-haw-Toby-Keith sense any more than the Houston version is really "rock".

I would say rather that they both fall squarely in the "American Songbook" tradition, the straightforward plainsong music that goes all the way back to the folk songs, hymns, drinking songs, and spirituals of the 19th Century and from there on back to Europe. The difference to me is that Houston uses a lot of facile vocal tricks to hang a lot of massively overblown show business; Parton uses her voice as an instrument to convey the emotion of the story.

I mean, there's a place for massive overblown show business - I like "Bohemian Rhapsody", too! But Whitney was one of the big forces in the belter-zation of female singing that has overwhelmed the light-rock/power-pop genre. Because a LOT more people listen to that than, say, Norah Jones, I tend to hear people sing like that, and very, very few people have Houston's vocal chops to pull it off...

Leon said...

Yeah, that vocal warble she does at the end does annoy me and is unnecessary. I put that down to (if I may use the crude phrase) vocal masturbation.

Unfortunately I can't overcome my inner irrationality to truly enjoy Dolly as it just sounds too 'country' for me personally. I had to listen to some death-metal-emo-waltz-baroque-electronic-new-wave harpsicord rock afterwards to clean my affected palate.

I just hope the next 'celebrity' that goes down the privy has less of a tragic nature so at least I can enjoy it. I'm looking at you, cast of Jersey Shore.

Lisa said...


I am so TOTALLY with you.

The "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."

This is so spot-on. The only reason she gained celebrity was her provenance from the singing family, and her presentation. I went back to listen to a You Tube of "I Will Always Love you", and could not find one that was not cringe-inducing.

Jim (and many others) say, "She was beautiful", but I said, "That is makeup and wonderful packaging. When you watch her in the clip, you see the legacy of spiritual singing in the black churches, and it is wonderfully demonstrative. But as far as excellence of tone or timbre, no.

We live in an area heavily black, and one great pleasure is being in a store and sometimes having a clerk or customer bust in song (yeah, even in these times.) EVERY single time this happens, the voice is that of an angel. They are all raised in that spiritual tradition, I'm sure.

Houton RUINED Parton's song, and I am no country music fan. Honor is done the sentiments when it is sung simply and reverentially, which is not the grandiose stylized presentation we get from Houston. It is the same thing I'd expect from Cher, except with gags, pauses and hiccups and hand swoops.

So, nothin' special her, just hype.

Lisa said...


As a person who plays and loves music, I can say that one should (must) appreciate all genres in order to take in the pantheon.

Parton has her place as an excellent songwriter and purveyor of the mountain sound. Maybe not my cup of tea, but her lyrics are heartfelt.

As Chief mentioned, Houston has also helped lay in that awful template for the misshapen things that have followed. You may fill in the blanks as they are legion, but I'll leave it at "Celene Dion".

Wanna talk about scream inducing glurge! Thank you, Canada!

Lisa said...

p.s. --

Your description of Parton's version is extremely empathic and correct, IMO.

This is fr. today's WaPo:

TV Column: Whitney’s ratings don’t carry over

The networks got more bad news when they learned that the late pop singer’s funeral will be private.
(The Washington Post)

Are we bloomin' nuts? Who CARES to view this woman's funeral?!?

Leon said...

That, dear Lisa is revenge for disco. You think you can inflict bell-bottoms on the world and escape divine retribution?

Bieber is (pre-emptive) payback for Rebecca Black.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to listen to some Meatloaf.

Labrys said...

Houston had a nice voice, and tho' I don't care for most country music (force-fed too much in childhood), I do like Dolly Parton a lot.

A song about loss....well, I have several versions of those to hear. Dido's "White Flag" is one of my personal favorites.

And Houston? Well, "waste of potential" describes large parts of the human race. I don't get celebrity worship.

Lisa said...


I had NOTHING to do with disco -- nada! Other good things sprang from (or at least, followed) disco which were far more noteworthy than the bloodless belting of Houton and her cohort. I would argue rock stayed strong until the mid-80's ... maybe 1986 being the cutoff (?) Nuthin' wrong with Meatloaf, though :)

Far as labrys' observation of the trite comment on Houston's death as a "waste of potential", again I must differ.

Houston met her potential -- and far outstripped it -- with the help of excellent publicity. There was no growth to be had there -- just more of the standard pap.

There were many better singers of her ilk which arose at the same time as Houston with better voices, like Anita Baker et. al, but Houston had the image. I don't get celebrity worship, either.

Lisa said...


Oops, sorry -- I just saw where the "waste of potential" comment was yours ... umm, we're all friends here, right ;)

Leon said...

Lisa: Unfortunately you're still on the 'frenemies' list. Your "great" national also cursed us with the twin horrors of Michael Bolton and Kenny G.

Lisa said...


The two you mention are assuredly not good, but no worse than Houston, IMHO. (Bolton serves the added purpose of being a stand in for Fabio on gothic romance covers.)

What is my "great national"?

FDChief said...

I think Leon meant to say "nation", yes?

Anyway, the thing is that overall I have to go with Lisa on the "waste" issue; I see Houston as the opposite - a woman who got WAY more wealth and fame out of a fairly modest talent because something in the way she sang struck a rich vein of sentimental glurge in the public. I know that most pop culture is crap, but the crap mine here is like one of those ginormous open pits they use to haul out copper in Arizona. Whitney didn't dig it, but she was pretty instrumental in the process, and I can't love her for that.

And her larger place is as a type for the sort of person who manages to grab a huge chunk of public notice for some fairly modest achievements. My feeling is that both process and outcome are bad for everyone involved; the person, who is suddenly immersed in this tub of gooey adulation while being larded with stupid money and fawning praise - a nearly inescapable trap for anyone without a self-discipline and self-deprecation capability of steel - and the public, which is allowed to wallow in its worst instincts without questioning for a moment whether adulation of and fascination with these perfectly commonplace random actors, singers, athletes, or utter nobodies (Kardashians, stand up, please!) is of any value whatsoever.

Not a pretty picture of our "society", however you spin it...

Leon said...


Yes, that was supposed to be "nation".

I concur somewhat that she was no Ella, but she did have some talent (more than me in the shower) so I appreciated that. Plus being incredibly sexy (before the cocaine phase started) didn't help.

Leon said...

Just stumbled onto this graphic, I think this sums up Whitney quite nicely: http://tinyurl.com/7wjwbz5

Lisa said...


No prob on the grammar; I type too fast and poorly, and make any # of errors :)

I am solidly with Chief on this one. I am so glad he spoke out on it, as he emboldened me to recognize how cringe-worthy I found her, in the face of all the hype to the opposite.

As Chief says, it was "sentimental glurge". When I sought to view Houston's signature song -- Parton's "I Will Always Love You" -- I was just aghast at her lack of comprehension for the lyrics.

As she sputters her syllables toward the end, with that insipid smile, she gesticulates to the audience and breathily mouths, ala Monroe, "And you, and you, and you ..." Jaysus, puh-leeze! No, no, NO -- that is NOT what the song means! Absolutely a butchery, and YET, the commenters LOVE it!

Leon, you may find her incredibly sexy, but that is largely the work of fine make-up artists and lovely sheaths. Take a look a the WaPo montage of Whitney -- pay attn. to her pre-made up self. You'd never look twice.

Most women (in their heydays -- the 20's) properly made up can look just smashing. Most cannot afford such attention.

The link:

50 Whitney Photos

Leon said...

No, I like my memories of her as slightly trashy and totally accessible. In all her airbrushed glory.

Lisa said...

Understood, Leon. Spoken like a true man :)

[friends, now? My dad's Canadian, y'know? I was almost born there, too -- just 3 wks. shy :)]

Leon said...

Don't you go parading your 'semi-Canadianess' around.

Why you've probably never played hockey on a frozen lake by a beaver dam while drinking Tim Horton's coffee and eating french toast with maple syrup.

Lisa said...

Shucks, Leon -- I don't wanna be frenemies!

True about the beaver dam, but I've slipped on ice in front of Hudson Bay Co, and love malt vinegar on chips, and dad was a semi-pro hockey player (a goalie, who had his nose broken thrice!)

Aside fr. Ms. Dion, I really like Canada. I love the Guess Who and Gordon Lightfoot (quoting from both recently), and Dan Akroyd, too :)

Leon said...

You left out Alan Thicke!

That's how I know you're stewing in anti-Canadianess.

We even have a holiday devoted to this paragon of acting.

Lisa said...

Sorry, Leon -- I don't know him! I have these great gaps in my knowledge of pop culture, and don't watch much t.v.

But while my mom skewered Dad with South Park's "Blame Canada", I though it all rather cruel :) Canadians are very nice people.

Leon said...

And allow me to demonstrate that we're nice people by apologizing for no reason whatsoever.

I'm terribly sorry.

Lisa said...

Not at all ... dad took it on the chin; he understands mom's superior British attitude!

Onward and upward!