February 14, 1985
Arista Records/ SME
1. You Give Good Love // 2. Thinking About You // 3. Someone For Me // 4. Saving All My Love For You // 5. Nobody Loves Me Like You Do (feat. Jermaine Jackson) // 6. How Will I Know // 7. All At Once // 8. Take Good Care of My Heart (Jermaine Jackson feat. Whitney Houston) // 9. Greatest Love of All // 10. Hold Me (Teddy Pendergrass feat. Whitney Houston)
In 1985 and Whitney Houston came fresh on the scene with her self-titled debut album. Whitney was the daughter of grammy winning gospel singer Cissy Houston, with whom she toured a lot at a young age, gaining her first stage experience. Apparently she was offered a bunch of record deals at a young age but her mother declined these because she wanted Whitney to finish high school, which is difficult to do with an international recording career. In 1983 however, she got signed by Arista head honcho Clive Davis. And Davis, Houston and a bunch of producers, including MJ’s big brother Jermaine, got it cracking. Allegedly because of Whitney’s gospel-styled vocals it took them two years to find a suitable set of pop songs, because as tame and slick as Whitney Houston is, it was considered revolutionary upon release. That is really hard to imagine for those who weren’t there at the time to experience the buzz firsthand. You see. For those of us who weren’t around in the mid-’80s to late ’90s, Whitney Houston is best known as that woman whose saccharine pop-soul plays in the background while we’re at the mall to purchase a new winter coat. A generic “diva”.
That is entirely unfair. Houston pioneered the style. The style being melismatically singing over sugarcoated, marshmellow-centred pop instrumentals. Not that this trivia convince anyone that Whitney Houston is a legitimate artist if that person is already convinced of the opposite being true, but that person just may begrudgingly have to give her originality points already.
Whitney Houston sure was a polarising figure for someone who recorded such vanilla-flavoured pop songs. Noted by the record buying audiences, critics and everyone with ears for her exceptional vocal talent and loved to death by her fans. But many of those same critics also believed that in the best case she was satisfied with recording whatever sterile, unexceptional material her producers handed her, or that in the worst case she purposely put her vocal talent to waste, in order to make herself and her label boss Clive Davis filthily rich, by recording songs that appealed to
white, middle aged housewives easy listening/ adult contemporary audiences, by dropping every notion of funk, soul and grit to separate as many people from their hard-earned money as possible.
For my money it was the former. As Robert Christgau put it in his 1985 review of this album: “I’d never claim that this sweet, statuesque woman and her sweet, statuesque voice are victims of exploitation. She obviously believes in this schlock.” Kitschy as everything here is, it’s all expertly and properly made and performed earnestly and more than competently by the lady of the hour. Whitney‘s self-indulgent earnestness is at the very same time at the core of it’s problem. (Anyone who sings lines like “I believe that children are the future.” as she does on Greatest Love of All, without blinking loses cool points immediately, just listen to the ballads off Michael Jackson’s Bad and Dangerous albums.) It is this general air of self-importance that makes this less fun to listen to than, say, New Edition, an album that exists solely to entertain and manages to have some fun doing so, even if Whitney Houston is probably the technically superior effort between the two albums. But to miss Houston’s credit, this probably was the kind of music she wanted to make too, because she does give it her all here and racks up some technically excellent performances over the span of this album’s fifty minutes and ten songs, even blowing more established soul-singers such as Teddy Pendergrass (surprising) and Jermaine Jackson (less surprising) completely out of the water on wat were originally their own songs on their own albums, transplanted to this one.
Her singing is so good in fact that it goes a long way in covering up the fact that most of the material she gets to perform is indeed some corporate songwriting and music-making at its worst, trying to incorporate as many contemporary musical trends into the most inoffensive musical format available (Kenny G-esque sax solos, clunky synth playing and syrupy strings on most of the ballads and ’80s cop movie car-chase sequence music on Thinking About You.), with lyrics that are meant to appeal to as many
women people as possible by going on about romantic situations. I.e.: having met the love of your life (You Give Good Love), having an affair with a married man (Saving All My Love For You), wondering whether someone she has a crush on will ever love her back (How Will I Know) having a complete emotional breakdown (All At Once), all the while maintaining an impossible level of politeness, grace and modesty. In other words Whitney may be properly emoting theatrically, but nowhere does she actually convey any emotion the way anyone would ever actually experience it. Never are there any feelings of spite. On Saving All My Love For You she doesn’t even consider asking the guy to leave his wife to be with her in stead, or telling the guy’s wife that she’s been doing him because “[he’s] got [his] family, and they need [him] there.”
So Whitney Houston is well made to appear lifelike and relatable to as many people as possible, telling tales about the ups and downs of love without trying to shock anyone with profanity, eventually turning out to be no-one’s actual reality. Still if you are the type of person who likes to let yourself be fooled by calculated, measured melodrama this the way to go. Also, the girl could sing. Before the was smoking bobby brown with Bobby Brown and before Mariah ran with her style and topped her in the vocal range department she was arguably technically the best singer in music. This is evident when you realise that some of this mid-1980s shtick is actually saved from blandness by her performances, and that these corporate-songwriter creations are sung a lot more convincingly than they deserve to be. She could actually turn these tin cans into gold with her enormous, unusually clear mezzo-soprano voice. Off course to maximize the potential you’d have to give apply this fantastic instrument to some well written, interesting material. Alas, not much in the form of that is to be found on Whitney Houston, but it would occur later on in her career (i.e.: My Love Is Your Love).
Concluding: Whitney Houston is simultaneously both a good showcase of Whitney’s more than considerable talents and a pretty generic album. For the most part she does her nickname the Voice justice. But the material she gets to work with can’t quite keep up. And Whitney, while technically is singing excellently, can’t quite put reality into these songs beyond a soap-opera level, though she comes close through sheer technical skill.
You Give Good Love
Saving All My Love For You
How Will I Know
All At Once
Greatest Love of All
If you are a fan of sappy, slick, big ballads and well-performed vocal acrobatics and enjoy watching shows such as the Voice, Whitney Houston is for you. It is a textbook classic in the genre of “diva” pop, and possibly it’s highlight. If you’re looking for something realer, more gritty, and less candy-coated you may have to go find yourself a copy of What’s the 411?.