There is every indication that Ms. Houston knew God, or certainly had the opportunity to know God, and that is where our responsibility ends. Not to force people into being what we want them to be but to simply tell them about the love of Jesus Christ. Only God knows what choices Ms. Houston made about their relationship, but the jolt to our collective system was how intentionally fraudulent the Whitney Houston image was. For someone to live our black church experience for the majority of her young life only to reveal herself, willingly and unapologetically, as a tragically lost individual and cruel caricature of the greatness God had endowed within her, is terribly sad. Her passing last week was, for me, merely the conclusion of that sadness, giving rise to hope that she is indeed in a better place, freed of the flawed humanity that oppressed her for so long.
I've got to admire Clive Davis.
The guy could sell ice cubes to
Eskimos. He could sell sand to Arabs. He could pee down your
neck and tell you it’s raining. Apparently escorted out of his
role as founder and CEO of Arista records (escorted as opposed
to forced out), Davis shrewdly made a deal with Arista to fund
his own label. Arista fell for it, stupidly plowing a reported
$170 million into the new startup, now called J-Records, after
Clive’s middle name, “Jay.” I say stupidly, because, if anyone
at Arista had any idea who Clive Davis was, they wouldn't have
given the man a penny. Clive, Mr. Aretha Franklin, Mr. Whitney Houston, Mr. Bee Gees,
is a genius with an ear for talent. He has the smarts to know how to
develop and package it, and the muscle to shove it down our
collective throats. And now J-Records is mopping up the floor
with poor Arista and with L.A. Reid, Arista’s new boss, whose
biggest move to date was throwing $100 million at Whitney
half of the famous hitmaking duo L.A. Reid and Babyface and
co-founder of LaFace records (distributed, conveniently, by
Arista— a deal Clive no doubt facilitated), might have done
better to take that cash and use the stacks to prop up that
wobbly sofa in his basement.
Whitney will need several massive hits in order for Arista to recoup its investment, and the problem with Whitney is not her out-of-control ego, nor Bobby The Huge And Continuing Embarrassment Brown, nor even her reputed drug use. Whitney Houston’s big problem, like Luther Vandross’s big problem, is that she’s Whitney Houston. She’s too powerful now to be bossed around, just like Vandross. And, just like Vandross and Michael “This Next Album Better Be Good” Jackson, Whitney hasn’t much clue about how to pick out good material.
Whitney’s last monster hit was the Dolly Parton cover, “I Will Always Love You.” Dolly, on Late Night With David Letterman, told us she made $7 million from Whitney’s version of that song. $7 million. Now, if Dolly made seven, then it stands to reason Whitney made at least that, but likely a lot more. Now, I’m no marketing genius, but see, if Dolly had made me $7 million, I’d be camped out on her doorstep trying to get the next song from her.
But, as I said, Whitney is Whitney. Whitney, despite her huge mainstream successes, wants to be accepted by blacks and by the urban hip-hop culture. Which is just insane. Whitney is well over seventeen years old, so the urban hip-hop culture isn’t paying her any mind, no matter what she does. She’s chasing a ghost, tasking Rodney Jerkins to produce music that would have appealed to her in the “You Give Good Love” days. But, those days are well behind her. She’s chasing after a group of people who wouldn’t pay her any mind if she raised Tupac from the grave and shot him again. Meanwhile, all the nice old people, white and black, are leaving their platinum cards in their wallet because Whitney doesn’t have another “I Will Always Love You” coming at us any time soon. It’s dumb. It’s a capricious indulgence of the star’s ego, her power to decide what is and what is not on her album.
Gone are the days when Narada Michael Walden (“Good Love,” “I
Wanna Dance With Somebody”) would just prop the teenage
Houston up in the studio, hand her the sheet music and dial her
in. Gone is Clive Davis, who helped create Houston, over to
J-Records, where Houston shoulda coulda and definitely woulda
been had not Reid opted to bail water from his sinking ship and
snapped her up. But will it be money well spent? Frankly, that,
and, “Can Michael Jackson Save Himself?” are, for me, far more
anticipated cliffhangers than Lucas’ Attack Of The Clones.
Clive, the genius, managed to somehow take aging balladeer Luther Vandross with him to J-Records, no doubt to the snickers of a great many industry insiders. The industry joke, of course, is that Fat Luther is better than Skinny Luther, that Skinny Luther is a bit lost and unfocused and sorely out of step with the kids these days. That somebody needs to hand Skinny Luther a bucket of wings so he can get creative again. Vandross was Houston, in control, in charge, going nowhere, and apparently too caught up in ego to realize it. People caught up in ego simply start firing everyone around them. That’s the answer— fire him! Fire her! After all, it can’t be Whitney Vandross’ fault that their albums are sleep inducing.
Arriving at J-Records, though, Vandross apparently found some self-awareness and light in the eyes of the genius Davis. Davis didn’t convince Vandross to let Davis control Vandross; he convinced Vandross to trust Davis. Trust is something that becomes harder and harder to do the more successful and more ego-driven you become. Vandross, reportedly, opted to trust Davis, likely in spite of a host of advisors who may have warned him the old man just got forced out of Arista, and J-Records is just a vanity label tax shelter. But, something about the personal charisma of the man Davis has the man Vandross relinquishing the reins in the studio for the first time in a decade, and, not coincidentally, landing Vandross and Davis and J-Records on Billboard’s Top Ten for the very first time. This, to the horror and amusement of industry insiders, was a miscalculation of some proportions: Arista funding its own competition. Davis taking resources and acts Arista was yawning about, like the made-for-TV boy band O-Town, and cha-chinng! banking hit after hit. It’s a great story. I mean, it’s such a great story, this J-Records story, this Clive Davis story, that it almost makes me forgive him for Alicia Keys.
Like Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston was on the verge of a big
comeback, with a feature film and new album, when she died
(speculatively of drug-induced drowning) in a Los Angeles hotel
bathtub. There is usually precious little dignity in dying,
Elvis Presley was allegedly discovered sitting on a toilet.
Vandross's death came after his hugely successful comeback, with
his final album, Dance With My Father, ironically
becoming his first Number One pop hit. I’m saddened by the news
of Whitney Houston’s death. Actually, I’ve been saddened by this
news for many years now, perhaps ever since this brilliant and
talented young woman revealed much of her grace and mainstream
likeability to have been a remarkable (and, more than likely,
Clive Davis-created) marketing illusion.
Far from being the wholesome and sensible girl next door her carefully constructed image portrayed her to be, Ms. Houston was actually, literally, the girl next door—Shaneequa, the loud and irascible urban reefer queen who inevitably falls for the local drain-circling hood rat. While it is perhaps easy and maybe even right to blame Bobby Brown for Ms. Houston’s shortcomings as much as we credit Clive Davis for her successes, we are all ultimately responsible for our own decisions.
There is every indication that Ms. Houston knew God, or certainly had the opportunity to know God, and that is where our responsibility ends. Not to force people into being what we want them to be—as the conservative “Christian” right tends to do by passing laws and backing political campaigns—but to simply tell them about the love of Jesus Christ. Only God knows what choices Ms. Houston made about their relationship, but the jolt to our collective system was how intentionally fraudulent the Whitney Houston image was. No matter how utterly disappointing and at times even disgusting, the reality of her final years at least provided some veneer of truth.
Hers is a cautionary tale, the looming lesson specifically for the black church being how utterly inefficient our tradition can be in introducing Christ to young people in a meaningful way, in a way that sticks. Like Ms. Houston, I grew up in the black church, but found Jesus in a white one where, stripped of all the pomp and circumstance of our traditional pageantry, Christ was allowed to reveal Himself in a meaningful and effective fashion. For someone to inhale our vapors for the majority of her young life and to reveal herself, willingly and unapologetically, as a sad and lost individual and cruel caricature of the greatness God had endowed within her, is terribly sad. Her passing last week was, for me, merely the conclusion of that sadness, giving rise to hope that she is indeed in a better place, freed of the flawed humanity that oppressed her for so long.