After several painful years of committing what may be called slow-motion suicide, pop singer Whitney Houston has perished at the age of 48, another wretchedly pitiful casualty of celebrity self-induced crapulence. Her burial earlier this month was accompanied by the same sort of flamboyant pomp and colorful fanfare that attended the funeral of Michael Jackson three years ago, and many of the usual suspects were on hand to exploit the tragedy of an early death for the purposes of egregious self-promotion.
Whenever someone Black and famous dies, that tubby walrus-like buffoon Al "Tawana Told the Truth" Sharpton seems to take it as his cue to stick his mug into every TV camera in sight and pontificate in his inimitably greasy way about America's innumerable social ills, until you wish some renegade reporter would have the decency to smack him over the head with his microphone and yell, "Prophesy to us, O ebony Savior… Who hath struck you?"
I am not immune to the pathos surrounding Ms. Houston's demise, and I will pray for her eternal soul. The truth is, though, that her music was crap.
This is not to say that Mrs. Bobby Brown wasn't immensely talented, of course. Her voice possessed magnificent range, and at one time (long ago) she comported herself with dignity, poise, and class. But talent, range, dignity, poise, and class aren't everything. In particular, they don't make crappy music into good music.
I am a child of the 80s who remembers Whitney's fresh-faced heyday, and well do I recall how much I despised every single W.H. song that invariably rocketed to the top of Casey Kasem's charts. Today, in my old age, I'm a bit more mellow on most issues, but I still regard the Whitney canon with trepidation, dismay, and horror. In particular I particularly cringe and moan deliriously, as might a man with a simultaneous toothache and migraine, when I consider the awesome awfulness of that trilogy of '80s ballad standards: Saving All My Love For You, I Will Always Love You, and (saving the worst for last) The Greatest Love of All.
Saving All My Love for You is a morally loathsome tune, celebrating a single woman's adulterous relationship with a married man. That fact by itself does'’t make it a terrible song, but it is an irritating component. Do we really need any more "yay, marital infidelity!" anthems after the grammatically and ethically challenged Me and Mrs. Jones first entered the collective consciousness at the height of the freewheelin' '70s?
Aesthetically speaking, Saving tries for a kind of torch-song vibe, but the attempt at sexiness falls flat; in fact, it’s even somewhat gross, perhaps even icky. "We’ll be maa-aa-king love the whole night through!" Whitney growls in the song's climactic final verse. Really? The "whole night"? Is that even possible? If it were possible, would it be desirable? Wouldn’t it hurt after a couple of hours? Wouldn’t it eventually just get boring? Count me out, Miss Whit. A man needs his sleep.
As for I Will Always Love You, I'll admit I remember nothing about the song save for the chorus, which is twenty seconds of sheer octave-scaling aural frightfulness. It is so vocally overcooked, lays on the "passionate devotion" thing so thickly, gets so in-your-face with its virtuoso protestation of fealty, that you just want to run away in terror, with your hands clasped over your ears. I really feel for any guy whose girlfriend tells him that she wants this musical equivalent of waterboarding to be "our song." I'd say best get out before she smothers you with a pillow while you're sleeping, or stabs you with a restaurant fork in a jealous rage after growing convinced that you flirted with that pretty waitress when you asked her to put extra mayonnaise on your sandwich. We must recognize psycho-bait when we hear it, and I Will Always Love You is, indeed, an effective dog-whistle to psychos everywhere. Not to mention that the plaintive whines of bitch-dogs in heat are more pleasing to the human ear than the song's screechy, gushing, relentlessly insistent refrain.
But finally, we arrive at the most appalling of destinations in this musical triptych—on the infernal shore that yawns before the harsh, hell-blasted realm that is The Greatest Love of All.
Let us pause, with a shudder, to consider the grotesque, demonic audacity of the song's very title. Without a trace of irony, it takes the beautiful poetry of St. Paul ("the greatest of these is love"), and shamelessly inverts its underpinning ethos. For the "greatest" love, in the song's twisted perspective, isn't love of others (charitos) or love of God (agape), but love of self. "Greatest" is hardly the first song to glorify narcissism; indeed, modern pop stardom is all about saying "Worship me, ye lowly minions!" But it's usually done with a sort of flair, and a healthy sense of humor. Think of Whitney's own '80s contemporary Madonna and her cheeky "Material Girl" persona. Or consider Johnny Rotten’s snarling declaration: "I've got no feelings for anybody else, except for myself, my beautiful self!"
But John Lydon's sneering hunchbacked-ogre stage persona and Ms. Ciccone's intentionally provocative undulating/gyrating/moaning "virgin-touched-for-the-first-time" act are both obvious examples of shtick. By contrast, Whitney's "Greatest Love" musical manifesto comes through as thoroughly sincere; she promotes self-centeredness with the rapt enthusiasm of a fire-and-brimstone preacher. Indeed, the tone of the song is nothing if not self-congratulatory; the speaker is very taken with herself, in a manner that resembles the smug, maudlin narrator of Frank Sinatra's insufferable My Way (expertly sent up in Sid Vicious's far superior punk-rock cover several years later). She clearly expects praise and plaudits for bravely choosing her life-philosophy and succeeding against all odds—she graciously awaits our applause for having learned to make love to herself her whole life through.
But Greatest in fact exceeds the odium of My Way because it is far more grandiose. In fact, the speaker actually has the gall to begin with a brazenly shameless shout-out to "the children," whom she "believes are our future." This sounds like a profound and portentous claim, but it's really quite inane. Can one truly "believe" something that is axiomatically true? Does it make sense to "believe" that water is wet, or that a circle is round?
In any case, after imploring us to "show (the children) all the beauty they possess inside," she gets to the heart and soul of the matter; just as the children need to recognize their true inner wonderfulness, so she "decided long ago" to recognize and pay homage to her own greatness:
I decided long ago, never to walk in anyone’s shadow
If I fail, if I succeed, at least I live as I believe
No matter what they take from me, they can’t take away my dignity!
Ah, but they can! And they will. You don’t have to be a debauched junkie to recognize this fact. One's bid for dignity is sure to fail, because living in our world means rendering oneself helpless against the manifold forces of de-dignification, checked off in Prince Hamlet's lengthy laundry list of all-too-common human agonies, to wit:
The whips and scorns of time
The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely
The insolence of office, the law's delay
And the respect that patient merit of the unworthy takes…
Such indignities, and probably worse, simply cannot be avoided as long as we trudge through this mortal coil. Moreover, the truth is that, as anti-modernist guru Tyler Durden tells his disciples in Chuck Paulanik's novel Fight Club, none of us are, as the bogus self-esteem movement would have it, "sacred unique snowflakes of special unique specialness." In fact, if we are honest with ourselves we will admit that there is much within us that is in fact ugly, appalling, and undesirable. Self-love, then, must be tempered with a sober self-knowledge, which means acknowledging that we are largely unlovely creatures, riddled with sin. Thus Greatest Love's crescendo of a coda, which counsels…
If by chance that special place
That you’ve been dreaming of
Leads you to a lonely place
Find your strength in love
…can only ring horribly hollow, in addition to making little sense. (What exactly are the "special" and the "lonely" places, and why does the former "by chance" lead to the latter?) Yet it is a fitting close to a three minute orgy of gratingly sanctimonious, snivelingly drippy, aggressively confrontational, yet rhetorically incoherent musical vomitousness. And if your palms aren’t sweating copiously with dread before the final note resonates into an awful infinity, then you must be psychically comatose.
It would be too easy, and too cheap, to call Whitney Houston a victim of her own rhetoric, or to speak of her terrible descent from '80s golden girl to conspicuously dissipated crackhead as anything other than a tragedy. Houston didn't write any of the songs mentioned here; in singing them, she merely gave voice to the deplorable aesthetic and moral fads of a degenerate age. She was a terrific singer in her prime, and perhaps as much a victim of the moral vacuum of modernity as a proponent of its specious values.
May light perpetual shine upon her now, and may she know a peace that transcends the dubious self-love she so unfortunately rhapsodized in her ghastliest and most memorable hit song.
27th February 2012