SHE WAS ANOINTED, for sure. Behind the curtain, all the machinery was being cranked up for her debut, all the fanfare that was possible back when record labels had money to lavish on marketing.
But the Whitney Houston I met at Arista (I was cranking out publicity and advertising copy) seemed shy and reserved, a stunning young woman who didn’t take extraordinary measures to be stunning: she simply was, in her sweatshirt, jeans and boots. She’d be plopped on the sofa in an office near mine, chatting with her publicist, and I would stop in to say a quick hi, which had to be quick because, let’s face facts, she rattled me a little. She hadn’t even made her album yet, but everyone knew what was coming around the corner, even if it ended up exceeding what anyone in his or her right mind might have predicted.
That’s the Whitney I remembered on Saturday night when the calls and the e-mails and the Facebook postings started flooding in, the girl who blew down the doors at Sweetwater’s, and was ready to face the world and all the expectations. Let other people write about the years of preposterous fame, and the string of hit singles (although I do remember the night her seventh consecutive single went to #1, and we all did many tequila shots in a Tex-Mex bar), and so forth. What went on at the label meetings is for others to tell or not. For a while, there was an outtake from the photo shoot from her first album, Whitney on the beach in a one-piece white swimsuit, pinned to my office wall. That’s another image I remembered on Saturday night.
I watched the parade the next night at the Grammys. Rihanna, and Katy, and Adele, and Jennifer, and Taylor, and Nicki. Gaga in the audience. (Lana must have been somewhere prepping for next year.) Carrie and Kelly, the girls launched by competitive singing on a national stage. Miranda clutching Blake’s arm during the prayer for Whitney. Those lovely women in Lady A and The Band Perry. All with so much pinned on them, the pressure to sell more music, to get back in the studio, to write or find the songs, to be beautiful or striking or outrageous. Think of how much Katy means to EMI, Taylor to Big Machine, Adele to XL and Columbia, how much is riding on their success. Taylor and Adele are around the age Whitney was when she became a phenomenon; still in their early twenties, they already have so much to live up to. I know what that’s like, from the point of view of the record label.
One thing I love about Taylor Swift and Adele is that everything is fair game. Taylor takes all her break-ups and bad reviews and fires back with songs. ‘Mean’, the other night, became a hoedown with bite: “Someday I’ll be singing this at the Grammys, and all you’re gonna be is mean,” she sang. Earlier that night, picking up one of her two awards, she said, “There’s nothing like writing a song about someone who’s really mean to you and makes your life miserable, and then winning a Grammy for it.” And Adele’s 21 album is creative revenge, dissecting a “rubbish relationship.” They seem driven but clear-headed, they connect emotionally. Maybe they’re a new model, maybe they’re made of stronger stuff, maybe they’ll tell their managers and record companies to chill for a while and give them time to work life out. There’s plenty of time for next albums.
I sat in Grammy audiences and watched Whitney bask in that adoring glow, grab her moments, everything still in front of her, the future limitless. She seemed literally golden.
But I also saw the teenager just hanging out on Arista’s sixth floor, and the loss of that girl breaks my heart.
© Mitchell Cohen, February 2012