in The People's Album

In the last edition of The People’s Albums, I think I hinted that I hadn’t heard a single song off of Whitney Houston’s self-titled debut, which I figured would make for an interesting listen.  Because as I’ve made my way through America’s best-selling albums, I’ve found that pretty much every mega-selling album has at least two or three songs that have endured the ravages of time.  Or at least to the extent that someone who listens to as much old music as me would be familiar with a few songs off of one of these albums.  Luckily, I was able to find that I actually was familiar with one of the songs on Whitney Houston – the pop-tastic “How Will I Know”.  Still, I can’t say I was terribly familiar with any of the other tracks on this album, which might say something about its somewhat faded legacy.

Album: Whitney Houston
Artist: Whitney Houston
Release Date: February 14, 1985
Copies Sold In The U.S.: 
13 Million

Why Was This Popular?

Because America Loves A Strong Black Woman (but not as much it loves Michael Jackson)

When Whitney Houston unexpectedly passed away in 2012 (doesn’t it feel a lot longer ago?), I wasn’t entirely sure what to feel about the singer’s death.  Of course Houston was an immensely talented singer, and at age 48 she clearly died far too young.  But beyond “I Will Always Love You” and her rendition of the national anthem at the 1991 Super Bowl, I had very little knowledge of her work.  And I’m sure that’s how a lot of people my age or younger felt about Houston when she died, which is a shame considering she’s been cited as the most awarded female musical artist of all time, and more importantly was really the first black female superstar of the MTV era.

And yet, when I think back about her death, it still seems overshadowed by the somewhat recent death of another 80’s superstar, and I’m of course talking about the King Of Pop.  I find this pretty eerie — that even in death, Whitney Houston was living in the sequins-covered shadow of Michael Jackson, since in many ways she seemed unintentionally tied to Jackson for much of her early career.  MJ was after all the first male black singer to get constant airplay on MTV, after which his complete world domination followed.  Prior to the release of Whitney Houston’s self-titled debut, like Jackson, Houston was positioned as a prodigy who grew up around the music industry (her mother was the first cousin of Dionne Warwick and her godmother was Darlene Love), and was so utterly bursting with talent that she seemed destined to become a superstar.

Now, obviously Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson are completely different performers.  Jackson seemed liked a much more diverse talent, as he was just as iconic as a dancer and music video auteur as he was a singer and songwriter.  Houston’s talent however lied completely in that pitch-perfect and all-encompassing voice of hers, and with it she laid down the template for plenty of golden-throated divas to follow.  Still, it’s hard to imagine America becoming as receptive as it was to a slicked-up R&B sound like the one we hear on Whitney Houston if it hadn’t been preceded by one particular 20 million-selling album that Jackson put out in 1982.  Also, it becomes even harder to not think of MJ while listening to this album when his underachieving brother Jermaine produced three of its tracks, and even makes an unnecessary vocal cameo on “Nobody Loves Me Like You Do” and “Take Good Care Of My Heart”.  Way to latch on to more talented people than you, dude.

Did It Deserve To Be Popular?

Don’t get me wrong.  I think this is a pretty important album in regard to the evolution of the female pop singer, as it paved the way for the Mariah Carey’s and the Beyonce’s of the world.  Yet despite Whitney Houston being placed at number 254 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of all time, I don’t think it really holds up that well.  A lot of it has to do with its unmistakably ‘80s production style, but I think it also has to do with the fact that this album relies so heavily on its ballads.

As you may or may not know, the aforementioned single “How Will I Know” was a number 1 single for Miss Houston, and still remains a pretty infectious piece of ‘80s pop R&B.  But apparently the ballads “Saving All My Love For You” and “The Greatest Love Of All” were also number 1 smash singles, both of which appear on this album.  This was surprising to me because I’d never heard either of these songs, and even now after listening to this album several times I couldn’t hum them to you if I tried.  Also, it doesn’t help that these ballads are pretty syrupy and overbearing (“Greatest Love Of All” literally begins with the line “I believe that children are our future…”).  Did I mention that Whitney Houston is a really great singer?

Anyways, I have a theory as to why a lot of the balladry seen on Whitney Houston is a little forgettable, and it mostly revolves around the fact that ballads don’t age very well.  Sure, ballads are by design more emotional and have a vulnerable quality that can truly hit a nerve with people, and thus sell a lot of records.  However, as time goes by, I think ballads fit less into our nostalgic recollections of the past than a more upbeat pop song does.  It’s the reason people usually have a very particular kind of song in mind when they hear the term “oldies”, and an infectious little ditty like “How Will I Know” fits much better into that criteria.  So basically what I’m saying is that Sam Smith needs to start pumpin’ up the party jams or else his legacy is fucked.

Would I Pay Money For This?

I don’t think I would.  Though if I ever ran into a copy, I’d be tempted to buy a vinyl 45 of “How Will I Know” since that song is still an infectious slice of exuberant ‘80s pop.  Though I’m not sure buying singles on vinyl is a wormhole I’d like to get sucked into anytime soon.

Next Time On The People’s Albums: I’ll fly like an eagle by taking the money and running to the nearest copy of Steve Miller’s Greatest Hits.