Whitney Houston burst onto the music scene in 1985 with her self-titled LP which had four number one hit singles on it, including “The Greatest Love of All,” “You Give Good Love” and “Saving All My Love for You,” plus it won a Grammy Award for best pop vocal performance by a female and two American Music Awards, one for best rhythm and blues single and another for best rhythm and blues video. She was also cited as best new artist of the year by Billboard and by Rolling Stone magazine. With all this hype one might expect the album to be an anticlimatic, lackluster affair, but the surprise was that Whitney Houston (Arista) was one of the warmest, most complex and altogether satisfying rhythm and blues records of the 1980s and Whitney herself had a voice that defies belief. From the elegant, beautiful photo of her on the cover of the album (in a gown by Giovanne De Maura) and its fairly sexy counterpart on the back (in a bathing suit by Norma Kamali) one knows that this wasn’t going to be a blandly professional affair; the record was smooth but intense and Whitney’s voice leaped across so many boundaries and was so versatile (though she was mainly a jazz singer) that it’s hard to take in the album on a first listening.
“The Greatest Love of All” was one of the best, most powerful songs ever written about self-preservation and dignity. From the first line (Michael Masser and Linda Creed are credited as the writers) to the last, it was a state-of-the-art ballad about believing in yourself. It was a powerful statement and on that Whitney sung with a grandeur that approached sublime. Its universal message crossed all boundaries and instilled one with the hope that it’s not too late for us to better ourself, to act kinder. Since it’s impossible in the world we live in to empathize with others, we can always empathize with ourselves. It was an important message, crucial really, and it was beautifully stated on this album.
According to twitter, Whitney Houston has died. Also according to AP, which means that it may actually be true. Regarding the media circus which shall ensue within the next hours, I’ll simply link to this. I won’t watch any of the coverage of her passing; I didn’t care for her music, her acting, or her public persona, and so I have little interest in the media fest that will be her wake. However, given that our aesthetic commitments play out not simply in terms of preference for one musician over another, but indeed help determine what we find relevant and irrelevant, I’m reluctant to judge those that will form the audience for the wake.
Our Lady of Manzanar joins Neo-Neocon in wondering where our child-rearing strayed from its obligation to raise capable citizen-soldiers. Like Neo-Neocon, Malkin seems to think we’re raising a generation of pacifist, Ferdinand the Bull-reading milk-sops. Behold:
I have a pet peeve. It goes beyond the antiwar indoctrination rampant in American schools. At the playground and at the mall, I see 5-, 6- and 7-year-olds walking around with pacifiers in their mouths. Kids old enough to feed and dress themselves. Kids old enough to figure out the remote control and cell phone. Standing upright, suckling on brightly colored binkies.
Where are the parents to yank the rubber from their mouths and force them to grow up? When did child pacification usurp the responsibility of child-rearing?
. . . I return to the video of the Hamas kindergarten class. Their “emotional barometers” break through the roof as one toddler with plenty of self-esteem leads the rest in a bloodthirsty call and refrain:
“What is your path? Jihad!” “What is your path? Jihad!”
. . . Pardon me while I go fill my worry box. It’s a small world, after all.
As Malkin encroaches into Bobo-land here, citing noxious middle-class parenting trends that, like, maybe don’t actually exist, I’d really be interested to know how many seven-year-olds she’s seen with a Nuk dangling from their mouths. Because I’m guessing that number is somewhere in the neighborhood of zero to one.
Still, I don’t think Michelle should worry. With a little work, I’m sure we can raise fine children — strong, decent Christian children, perhaps like Isaac Malachi here:
. . . Good God, I need to look around a little more before posting. Roy and Mister Leonard Pierce also covered this . . .
Before I saw the Aretha Franklin performance of “A Natural Woman” at the Kennedy Center Honors, I didn’t even think I was a particular fan of that song, but it was like her voice was a fist that reached into my chest and pulled the emotion out of me, whether I wanted it to or not. I was totally mystified by the effect until a friend pointed me to this classic explication of what makes a diva by Jay Caspian Kang and his crack team of diva scientists. It is definitely worth a read if you’ve never seen it before. Whitney Houston comes out on top.
I remembered an occasion I had to see a recital/critique run by a fairly fancy vocal coach, and his instruction to the singers to make the audience believe they were about to see something wonderful in the way the walked to the stage and placed their music on the stand. Analyzing the first few moments before Aretha starts to play: she’s wearing not only a gold brocade dress and a diamond necklace, but a full length fur coat. Indoors. That fur coat says so much. It says, my body is big and I am going to do something to make it even bigger. It says, I am rich and glamorous in a way that is outside of any judgment you could possibly make. She looks at the piano, almost like she’s inspecting it to see if it’s suitable, before she even acknowledges the audience. Then she blows these kisses. She has the barest of smiles, she’s extremely deliberate, and the message from the kiss is not, “I adore and need you, my public,” but much more, “These kisses are a prelude to the gift I am about to give you.” She telegraphs, “I am in control and I own your perceptions.” That sets her up to get what she wants from the audience before she sings.
Now that Aretha Franklin has made Obama cry, Jay Caspian Kang acknowledges that Diva Rank must be recalculated. I agree, but I’m feeling bad for Whitney Houston that she’s not around to defend her title. I guess to win the long game in the Diva Wars, you need some vice, but only just enough.
The Grand Junction (CO) Daily Sentinel has a weekly feature where readers can write in and bitch anonymously about whatever they want. This is from the year-end edition in last Sunday’s paper.
I would also like to point out that Barack Obama is responsible for the death of Wayne Rogers last night. He also threatened Daniel Murphy’s family during the World Series, saying that if he didn’t blow every defensive play, his kids would be sent to Obama’s good friends in Boko Haram. Finally, are you aware that Whitney Houston did not die as was stated in the liberal media? Nope, Obama had her personally murdered because he thought she treated Bobby Brown poorly. These things, along with every other event of the last 7 years, no matter how trivial, can be laid directly at the feet of our national dictator.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Levon Helm and The Band over the past week. A few final thoughts.
I’ve been really impressed with the outpouring of grief for the passing of Levon Helm. While his passage may not have had the pop culture impact of Whitney Houston, for “music people,” broadly defined, Helm’s passing was a very big deal. I’m certainly too young to have been aware when Richard Manuel died, but I was already a big fan of The Band when Rick Danko passed. I remember that being a noteworthy event, but hardly a matter of massive remembrances and sorrow. Maybe that’s because internet culture was not fully developed in 1999 and maybe because Danko did himself in through his drug use.
What’s interesting to me is to think about why Helm’s death has had such a greater impact than Manuel or Danko’s. While all three shared the vocals for The Band, Helm sang of most of their most remembered songs and there’s no doubt that people’s knowledge of “The Weight,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” and “Up on Cripple Creek,” makes a difference. At the same time, none of The Band’s members exactly had a stellar post-breakup career. Manuel was a total mess. Danko put out at least one album in the 80s that people I respect talk fairly positively about, but I’ve never heard it and it’s hardly an important album (taking a look at Danko’s Wikipedia page, it seems that someone has been releasing live recordings of Danko solo shows from the 80s. Why? Am I missing something here?). It’s not like Levon did all that much more. His acting, since he had real skill at it, did keep him in the spotlight. But he didn’t release any solo albums of note. His “Midnight Rambles” definitely made people brought him back into the public eye on a small level, but it’s not as if that many people ever saw them (I looked into going to one last year and it was like $80 and I had trouble justifying that expense). Of course, Garth Hudson became the session keyboard whiz he always was after 1977. Robbie Robertson was supposed to be the one with the big solo career, but that fizzled fast.
So in creating a public historical memory of The Band, which members grab the attention. Somewhat to my surprise if you had asked me this 10 years ago, it’s clearly Levon.
I know that some people talk positively of The Band as a live outfit, but I’ve always found their live recordings pretty disappointing. I picked up the Live from Watkins Glen album several years ago and, while it’s OK, I hardly ever listen to it. I’ve felt this way watching footage on You Tube as well. They are tremendously skilled and do a functional job with their material, but there’s a huge difference between The Band playing their own shows and backing up Dylan. With Dylan, they feel so incredibly loose and awesome in a way that they never did by themselves. See these two clips:
Feel free to disagree with me, but to me, they sure sound better backing up Dylan on a Woody Guthrie cover than doing their own songs.
I’ve wondered if sudden fame for a career backing band didn’t freak them out a little bit and make them tight. None of those guys had the charisma of Dylan, even if Robertson tried. Despite their 2 transcendent albums and couple of pretty good albums, I still think The Band would have been better as primarily a backing band that occasionally did their own material, something like the members of The Meters and Booker T & the MGs. Today, I think of Calexico this way. Calexico does great work as a backing band, such as on Tom Russell’s Blood and Candle Smoke or that EP they did with Iron & Wine 6 or 7 years ago, but their solo work has always left me profoundly indifferent.
I’ve also been thinking about Helm’s noted bitterness over The Last Waltz and toward Robbie Robertson for hogging all the songwriting rights and thus the money. Of course, Scorsese and Robertson were good friends by the mid 70s, snorting coke together and such (I believe they lived together for awhile around 1980) so it’s hardly surprising that the film would focus on Robertson. And let’s face it, after 1970, he basically wrote all the songs. Now, one might argue that with a band like this, did the lyrics really encapsulate the songwriting? But the other guys did totally drop the ball on even trying to write lyrics for the most part. Even after Robertson broke up the band, the later Band albums were almost all covers. We might think of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Up on Cripple Creek” as Levon’s songs, but those were Robbie’s words and that does matter.
Still, Robertson’s slickness has always rubbed me the wrong way. His own solo albums are not good. Moreover, I have no problem that he’s embraced his Native American heritage late in life, even if it hasn’t helped his music. But I do have a major issue with him rewriting the history of The Band to include some sort of Native American influences. I saw an interview with him 7 or 8 years ago where he claimed that the indigenous music he grew up with as a small child was as big an influence on his music with The Band as rock, country, blues, gospel, and everything else that went into it. There’s zero evidence of this whatsoever. It’s not like the 1970s didn’t see hippies embracing Native American culture; had Robertson really felt this way, he could have talked about it sometime before the 1990s. This is a small thing, but annoying and somehow indicative of the slight prevarication I’ve always felt from him when reading or listening to interviews.
So I wonder whether Robertson will be remembered as fondly upon his passing as Helm. He seems less relevant today, maybe because he never sang much and maybe because his solo career is almost totally unremarkable and unremembered. I might be wrong about this of course.
Finally, given the age of the 60s generation rockers and the lack of concern with which most treated their bodies, I suspect we’ll be having several conversations like this in the next few years.
Now and then, responsible bloggers revisit old viewpoints and test them against a fresh stable of facts. This was an especially useful exercise, for example, after the war in Iraq had muddled on for half a decade; in this presidential election year, perhaps we’ll have a similar chance to revisit the campaign of 2008 and measure the strengths and weaknesses of our ancient predictions and preliminary evaluations of Barack Obama. On the internet, we must first be accountable — and unsparingly so — to ourselves.
About five years ago, I demonstrated through unimpeachable, crystalline internet science that Jewel Kilcher could easily be numbered among the worst human beings our nation has ever pinched through its sod-packed colon. This was long before the Whitney Houston Obituary Wars, but long-time LGM readers may remember the discomfort this important (if objectively uncontroversial) truth caused some of our transient commenters, who denounced me for squashing the dreams of young people who wanted nothing more than to scribble shite poetry like their heroine, or for adopting a grossly undeserved tone of disdain toward someone who’d enlivened the souls of millions with her irony-free acoustical earnestness.* And ever since, various japesters in my life have made certain that I’m never wanting for updates on Jewel’s personal life and inspiring professional accomplishments. (Did you know that she got hit by a fire truck last year? Well, you would if you were me!)
So today’s mostly-non-Jewel-related e-mail barrage included this from the Huffington Post, wherein we learn that Jewel, unlike any other artist in human history, used to not have a lot of stuff. We also learn that because “she has not forgotten what it’s like to be hungry,” she’s partnered up with ConAgra to defeat food insecurity — a goal the company will surely achieve once it’s finished blowing up its workers, gouging the Palin family, or making sure Americans are getting enough nutritious Salmonella in their diets. Even worse, I have come to learn via Google Books that ConAgra was once — and perhaps still is — “almost entirely run by homosexuals and pedophiles” and that ConAgra executives have long been central actors in a gruesome, freemasonic Nebraskan underworld that uses children as drug couriers and ass candy.
Don’t be fooled, people.
* After LGM migrated from Blogger and we said our final, tearful fuck yous to JS-Kit, we lost that thread among many others — or so we thought. Fortunately, the Jewel Wars produced a few moments of such high comedy that we occasionally linked back to the original discussion, which I stumbled across this morning almost by accident. Behold.
Most celebrity deaths are not emotional events for me. I cared a lot more about Amy Winehouse’s death than I do about Whitney Houston’s death, for two simple reasons. I like a lot of Amy Winehouse’s songs; I like exactly one Whitney Houston song (“I Will Always Love You”). I thought Winehouse was maybe going to produce a lot more good music; Whitney’s career seemed over. While it may seem callous to calibrate my level of mourning according to what is, or isn’t, in my iTunes library, I would argue that when it comes to celebrities, there’s no other reasonable standard. That’s what it means to make your living as an entertainer.
Nonetheless, like everyone else, I was deluged with blips on my social networks, expressing deep grief over Whitney’s passing. Most of this grief, if not in fact phony, was at least greatly exaggerated. Like so many other things that people do in relation to popular culture, it was a weird, projective emotional performance, designed to convince oneself and others that one has the right emotions in the right amounts.
The performative aspect of compulsory mourning is what bothered me as I half-listened to the television yesterday morning. The depthlessness of the mandatory praise heaped upon her bothers me for the same reason Patrick Bateman’s encomiums to popular culture do: they’re necessarily rote and necessarily reductive. Joe’s right to point out the different etiologies of “fake emotions and real emotionlessness,” but the fact that they produce the same result should be troubling. But far from being troubling—or even acknowledged—anyone who points this sad fact out is attacked for not taking advantage of death to draw attention to problems of race and sexism in America today.* Because that is a far more respectful way to treat the dead.
The wheat may not seem that important—though damn do I love it—but it calls to mind Woody Allen’s famous parody of Ingmar Bergman in Love & Death, which is relevant because “Vincent and the Doctor” is an episode devoted to the consequences of loneliness (felt or otherwise). The Doctor’s alone because he’s the Doctor; Amy’s alone because (unbeknownst to her) Rory’s been unwritten from existence; Vincent’s alone because Vincent’s always been alone; and the Krafayis is alone because it’s been abandoned by its fellows. This is a story that’s fundamentally about lonely people “coming together,” only director Jonny Campbell doesn’t shoot it that way. I bring up the visual punning on the wheat because the shots it parodies are relevant. To wit: