June 2, 1987
Arista Records/ SME
1. I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me) // 2. Just the Lonely Taking Again // 3. Love Will Save the Day // 4. Didn’t We Almost Have It All // 5. So Emotional // 6. Where You Are // 7. Love Is a Contact Sport // 8. You’re Still My Man // 9. For the Love of You // 10. Where Do Broken Hearts Go // 11. I Know Him So Well (feat. Cissy Houston)
If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, and if there’s anything Whitney Houston didn’t leave Whitney Houston (and probably more importantly; Clive Davis) it was broke.
So for her sophomore album, called Whitney, the same merry bunch of shlockmasters; Naranda Michael Walden, Michael Masser and Kashif were assembled to write a set of songs to similar to that on her debut (Jermaine Jackson was given the boot apparently).
The resulting album is some light, pleasant shopping mall music that every
white, middle-aged woman person was bound to experience as as specifically about him/ her. A trick that is what popular music is all about and, do not kid yourself, always has been about, but is rarely pulled off as brilliantly and purposefully as it is by Whitney, Clive and their assembly line songwriters. Or perhaps the trick is solely Clive’s, convincing Whitney that these song were specifically about her because she still sings them with gusto, and if not passion itself at the very least an imitation of passion that is indistinguishable from the real thing. Who was milking who exactly isn’t fully clear and is open for debate. Since I saw her explaining in an Oprah interview how deep something completely purposefully instinct R. Kelly wrote for her was, I like to believe she enjoyed making this type of music, and was actually a lot like her audience relating a lot to these generic songs about struggles that belong to no-one in particular. Feel free to disagree with that, I’m not an expert on music industry fuckery.
What isn’t up for debate however is that this album made everyone involved with its creation richer as it sold some twenty five million copies worldwide, some five million less than it’s predecessor, but hey who gives a shit. Twenty five million meant that in an era when people still paid for music the vast majority of those who picked up the first album picked up the sophomore (and were quite likely to do so again the third time around). This meant that Clive Davis and Whitney Houston were not simply succesful but that they had hit a gold mine that wasn’t going to run dry anytime soon.
Even if you don’t particularly enjoy this diva pop-R&B thing it’s quite easy to see why those who do would pick up a Whitney Houston album. It’s simply a matter of fact that she is a terrific singer, technically. She has a great, big mezzo-soprano voice that the New York times once desribed in a concert review as “a technical marvel from its velvety depths to its ballistic middle register to its ringing and airy heights.” and as “clean and strong, with barely any grit, well suited to the songs of love and aspiration that were the breakthrough hits from her first two albums” in an necrology. Indeed Whitney sold the best because technically she was the best, and no criticism on other aspects of her artistry can take that away from her. This technical singing is almost worth the price of admission of Whitney alone.
My beef then isn’t so much with miss Houston, but rather with her legion of American Idol/The Voice of [insert your country here] imitators, who learnt all the wrong lessons from her and Mariah (and arguably Stevie Wonder as well) and try to sing like her, ‘flaunting their vocal range’, but end up sounding incapable of holding a note and singing the goddamn song already, in stead. This, ladies and gentlemen, is quite simply put because they’re always not as good.
It’s easy imagining how Whitney‘s songs would sound if they were performed by such a third-rate store brand imitation of miss Houston. (And in fact they have been performed a plenty on these shows.) Dry and superficial. The words would come across as the generic pap songwriting they are and the backing music would make for something hotel-elevator worthy.
Since they’re performed by the real deal though.. well.. one should be a little more careful making such assessments. Whitney actually was, as Charlie Sheen would put it, capable of turning tin cans into gold. She breathes emotion and life into these songs. Perhaps overly dramatic, larger-than-life-sized-emotions that are phrased in an overly well mannered fashion that isn’t how people experience stuff, but then again she is after all a diva and not one of those ‘girl next door’ type of singers. And these self-important, overblown projections of feelings are probably perfect backdrops for post-breakup binge-ice cream eating sessions or something. (Listening to this album while tipsy is however not recommended. Lest you get tearjerked, you pansy.) Even if this album makes your hairs on your neck stand up, whether be it for all the wrong or all the right reasons, there’s no denying that there’s a certain epic quality to it.
As much as this album is similar to its similarly titled predecessor there are differences as well. Whitney is quite upbeat and uptempo. The debut was all ballads while you could dance to about 50% of the second album (if nobody is around while lip-syncing into a hairbrush in front of the mirror). The first album was all homewrecking-sentimentality, amorous insecurity and emotional breakdowns, this one has but one moment of such ambivalence. That’s Didn’t We Almost Have It All, which is bound to be someone‘s favourite song ever.
There’s also a little more sex on this album. Although it is for the most part weirdly ambiguous sex. And Love Is a Contact Sport is actually not about the contact sport-aspects of love you’d expect an R&B song with that title to be about, which can only be called a practical joke on the listener.
Just the Lonely Talking Again, is a ballad about the age-old question whether an unnamed love interest wants her for her booty or actually likes het as a person. It is a highlight because of its stripped down approach, relatively speaking off course, this is still a diva pop album. The backing music is pleasantly lush but not covered in a thick layer of shimmer. And Whitney’s vocal performance is atypically restrained, but excellent as always.
Love Will Save the Day throws in some lively latin rhythms that, when combined with a catchy song about the power of positivity makes the best song on the album. It would seem that producer Jellybean was listening to the Miami Sound machine before creating this beat. It also makes one wonder what guilty pleasures miss Houston could’ve produced if she would’ve gotten to record a straight disco or dance album, unhindered by ueberschtick balladry.
I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me), So Emotional and Love Is a Contact Sport are also functional and impeccably produced ’80s R&B dance songs, even if they’re not nearly as good or memorable as Love Will Save the Day.
As for the ballads. The previously mentioned Just the Lonely Talking Again sounds sincere and sexy. As does the Isley Brothers cover For the Love of You with its hovering sax riff. Where You Are walks the line. You’re Still My Man, Didn’t We Almost Have It All, Where Do Broken Hearts Go and the duet with mother Cissy I Know Him So Well (Written by ABBA puppetmasters Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus and Jesus Christ Superstar/Evita co-creator Tim Rice, and originally part of Rice’s musical Chess.) however is the kind of music that causes instant diabetes and dental cavities. It is the sort of vile super-Disney song that help either helps you through your day or makes you want to kill yourself.
(Speaking of hugely succesful shit that will make you want to kill yourself, ABBA and musicals. Why the fuck hasn’t someone written a lame story around Whitney Houston’s hits and sent that shit to Broadway yet? That shit would just make everyone filthily rich all over again. Mamma Mia! made two billion dollars worldwide and I’m sure Whitney’s music will bring out similar numbers. We’ll call it Queen of the Night. Catherine Johnson, you may have the idea. All I want is a visionary executive producer credit, a fair share of the cash and guarantees I’ll never actually have to watch the fucking show.
Whitney is the type of album that shows both the music industry and Whitney Houston at the peak of their powers, breaking down racial barriers on MTV and other mainstream pop outlets, and separating as many people from their hard earned cash as possible while doing that. It is an incredibly refined product meant to appeal to as many people as possible. And it’s pretty awesome for how accomplished it is in doing that. It helps that miss Houston in fact has one of music’s best. voices. ever. And that the people behind the boards are accomplished queso craftsmen. It is too bad indeed that she never used her powers for good and recorded something truly soulful or less pop charts and MOR radio oriented, but then again she wouldn’t seem very interested in that anyway (Just look up any Whitney Houston interview on youtube. Avant garde she was not.) so it is most likely best to take this music at face value, and consider this pop diva as the artist she truly was, and this music as a product she took pride in delivering to the masses, perhaps even believing it was high art.
Does that however mean you should listen to it? Probably, here’s why. This music aims to please the senses and through it the emotions, without challenging the listener. And it has enough know how to pull it off. I’m not saying that buying Whitney is anything more than buying into a shiny, fluffy illusion with artificial preservatives and taste- and colour enhancers gilore. But if that’s a thing you enjoy every once in a while then hey, there’s no shame in that. We all have our guilty pleasures. As far as diva-pop goes: this is the top segment of the market. And sometimes you just have to take a big greasy bite out of that Big Mac, yo.
Just the Lonely Talking Again
Love Will Save the Day
Where You Are
For the Love of You
If you can enjoy big radio pop that is
sterile clean and professional, also a bit pompous, yet prude and old fashioned, and lacks any sort of real edge, you may want to pick this up. Just hide it in a place where only you can find it, and use headphones when you listen to it. You won’t want the neighbours ‘thinking things’.