Whitney Houston's music appeals to both an urban contemporary audience as well as the mainstream Top 40 pop audience. Her music fairs well also on the more easy-going adult contemporary radio stations with many of her beautiful, soulful love ballads.
On her first album, "Whitney Houston," her voice was so fresh, crisp and rich. Many in the Black community who could hear the deep gospel and soulful sounds in her voice felt as if she was playing down her black roots to reach a broader white audience. They slightly disapproved of her because of this. It is true that she was marketed this way in order to not be limited to just a smaller urban market. Her magical voice was so incredible that to stifle such talent meant less revenue and as Whitney Houston has admitted, the music industry is all about making maximum profits in the shortest period of time.
To write from my own personal perspective, let me tell you how I felt about her and her crossover appeal. I was a pre-teen when her first album came out and I remember Whitney Houston's songs getting consistent play on the R&B stations. With this album she developed a strong urban base and slowly starting getting decent play on the pop stations. My favorite songs from this album are "You Give Good Love" which sounds very much like the soulful style of Anita Baker and "Saving All My Love for You" which to my ears also sounds like straight rhythm and blues. The song "Greatest Love of All" is absolutely a magnificent record that sounds like a combination of pop and R&B while also easily being classified as adult contemporary. There exists another song or two on this album that are kind of poppish and was just ok to me. But with song collaborations with Jermaine Jackson and Teddy Pendegrass, I still considered this album to be a Black album or as we say now an R&B album. I felt as if I knew Whitney Houston as an artist and could see myself in her.
Then, she puts out her second album entitled "Whitney." The first song promoted off of this album that I can recall was "I Wanna Dance With Somebody." The video for the song made me feel a little bit uncomfortable because Whitney looked ultra girlie with long blonde curls and seemed to be acting and dancing "white" like some sort of barbie doll with an ultra pink-purplish confetti background. Although I was a teenager who liked girlie things (15 years old at the time), the song was too bubble gum for me as a black girl.
The image of her in this video seemed so fake like she was trying too hard to fit in with the white people. It was fun with the black and white men doing acrobatic dance moves all around her but I didn't truly love it. I felt a real disconnect from the visual representation of her in the video. The creative directors even threw in the whole graffiti hip-hop denim segment to not completely lose the little girls like me. I admired Whitney and wanted to be a little princess just like her. She looked cute and all but she seemed to have stepped away from her blackness to me with the way that she was styled and marketed. The more success that she received on an international level the more of a disconnect I felt.
With the success of her first two albums, Houston was undoubtedly an international crossover superstar, the most prominent since Michael Jackson, appealing to all demographics. However, some black critics including myself believed she was "selling out." They felt her singing on record lacked the soul that was present during her live concerts. [Source: Wikipedia]
In fact, at the 1989 Soul Train Music Awards, when Houston's name was called out for a nomination, a few in the audience jeered. Houston defended herself against the criticism, stating, "If you're gonna have a long career, there's a certain way to do it, and I did it that way. I'm not ashamed of it." Needless to say, Houston took a more urban direction with her third studio album, I'm Your Baby Tonight, released in November 1990. She produced and chose producers for this album herself as a result of the negative criticism coming from the black community. Her third album featured production and collaborations with L.A. Reid and Babyface, Luther Vandross, and Stevie Wonder. The album showed Houston's versatility on a new batch of tough rhythmic grooves, soulful ballads and up-tempo dance tracks. Reviews were mixed. Rolling Stone felt it was her "best and most integrated album". However, Entertainment Weekly, at the time thought Houston's shift towards an urban direction was "superficial." [Source: Wikipedia]
Many years later, she did the movie, The Bodyguard, which was about an interracial romance between a music diva and her bodyguard. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie but felt that the timing to do a movie like this was a bit odd since she had just married bad boy Bobby Brown. The movie just made me wish even more for Whitney to have a real man by her side to show her real love. I always thought that Whitney Houston deserved a better husband ... someone more like Kevin Costner perhaps! Or a black version of Kevin Costner. It didn't matter but I just wanted her to be with someone other than Bobby Brown! When she married him, I thought that she had went temporarily insane or something. I felt very disappointed that she married Bobby Brown and to top it all off, the promotional poster for the Bodyguard movie was done in a way to downplay her blackness by hiding her face. She was the main character of the movie and the movie poster left me feeling a disconnect from the soulful woman I used to see in Whitney. Just a slight disconnect because her vocal talent, beauty and goodness was so obvious that I loved her as an artist anyway and cherish many of her songs. I loved seeing her on the big screen as a beautiful black woman in a love story where the interracial element of the movie was never addressed in the movie. The love between the characters portrayed by Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner seemed colorless and this representation of interracial love I had never seen before. After watching the movie, I understood why the movie poster was done in this way - to take focus away from race and place focus on LOVE! Just brilliant marketing that was highly successful world-wide!
My critique of her as a teenager in the late 80's is quite different from how I view her today as an adult in 2012 only a few days after her death. I understand now as an adult why she was marketed this way. I understand having that cross-over appeal creates super stardom on an international level. As a pre-teen and teenager listening to her music in her prime, I idolized her somewhat because I thought that she was pretty and classy. I loved Whitney Houston but always felt a little dissatisfied with her pop selections and felt that she vocally shined better with the soulful R&B ballads. I enjoy pop music probably just as much as I do R&B. But with Whitney Houston it just seemed like she was an R&B artist that they stretched to do pop. Whitney Houston sang pop music very well but not as well as she sang gospel and R&B. It is difficult for many artists to cross over into mainstream culture without losing their own culture and sense of self. Sometimes I just want to say to some of these artists "Just be black!" But, by appealing only to black people, these artists limit their income potential and other promotional opportunities. It is a shame because with all of the greed in the music industry you lose the true artistry of the music by coercing the exceptionally talented African American artists to "cross over."
The same criticism that I gave Whitney Houston during my teenage years is the exact same criticism that Oprah Winfrey received early in her career and is the same criticism that I receive as well in my own personal and professional endeavors. Appealing to a mainstream white audience always appears sort of like the artist is "selling out." It is not selling out. It really is just broadening your horizon to accomplish more. From a business perspective, it simply makes practical sense to market such genius talent this way as long as the artist doesn't lose their sense of self along the way.
Needless to say, my current personal music collection of female singers includes Toni Braxton, Mary J. Blige, Vivian Green, Sade, Mariah Carey, Teena Marie, Jennifer Lopez, Alicia Keys, Beyonce, Destiny's Child, Diana Ross, Christina Aguilera, Lauryn Hill, Britney Spears, Aretha Franklin, Carrie Underwood, Fantasia, Fiona Apple, Alanis Morissette, JoJo, Katy Perry, Kelis, Kelly Price, Keyshia Cole, Madonna, Missy Elliott, Da Brat, Nelly Furtado, Nicole Scherzinger, Pussycat Dolls, Melanie B., LeAnn Rimes, Ciara, Amerie, Shakira, Brownstone, Avril Lavigne, Fergie, Rihanna, A.M.I.L., SWV, En Vogue, Olivia, Rah Digga, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott ... and yes, Whitney Houston! Surprisingly, after searching through all of my cd's, the only Whitney Houston cd that I owned prior to her death and still currently own is the 1999 re-mix cd of "It's Not Right But It's Okay" and includes the bonus remix of "I Will Always Love You." Today (5 days after her death) this cd is being sold for $35! Jammin' re-mix cd!!!! After her death I purchased her first album, "Whitney Houston," her last album, "I Look to You," and the movie, "The Bodyguard." I had to purchase these items online because everything at the local stores here had already been sold out by the time I tried to purchase.
The passing of pop diva, Whitney Houston, has had a tremendous impact on me. Now, more than in the past, I will enjoy her music and her movies as well as treasure the beauty of what she represented. It's funny how we sometimes have to lose someone in order to truly appreciate that person's talent.