On March 30, 1988, at the second annual Soul Train Music Awards held in Los Angeles's Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, Whitney Houston was booed.
[There was a video here]
During the following year's Soul Train Music Awards ceremony, at L.A.'s Shrine Auditorium, Whitney was booed again.
[There was a video here]
The audible jeers came after Houston's name was read alongside fellow nominees in categories she'd go on to lose: Best Music Video and Best R&B Urban Contemporary Single by a Female, respectively. The booings have long been considered representative of the black music audience's displeasure with Houston's image and output up to that moment.
So early in her career, Houston had already hit her saturation point. Her 1985 debut, Whitney Houston, would go on to sell over 25 million copies worldwide, and its 1987 follow-up, Whitney, moved about that many units as well. Between the two albums she had a string of seven consecutive No. 1 singles on the Billboard Hot 100, which remains a record.
"[Some people in the audience] had just gotten sick of me and just didn't want me to win another award," Houston said in the May 1991 issue of Ebony. "No, it does not make you feel good. I don't like it and I don't appreciate it, but I just kind of write it off as ignorance."
In Cissy Houston's 2013 memoir Remembering Whitney: My Story of Love, Loss, and the Night the Music Stopped, Whitney's mother recalled hearing from the Shrine's balcony "someone started yelling 'White-ey! White-ey!' like it was something clever."
The charge that Whitney Houston was too white for the late '80s has baffled me for as long as I've known about it. The actual footage is even more baffling, especially that of the first booing. Houston's fellow nominees were also crossover acts: Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, and Jody Watley. How was their pop more acceptable than Whitney's? How was Anita Baker, who won the Best R&B Urban Contemporary Single by a Female award in 1989, more edgy or legit? She had enormous success at that point, as well, and it's not as the other nominees, Karyn White and Vanessa Williams, were obscure either.
"Remember [Whitney] wasn't dancing," my friend Jason King told me in an email after I reached out to him to help me understand the climate back then. King is a writer, a musician, the curator and host of NPR's NPRandB, and the director of Clive Davis Institute's Writing, History & Emergent Media wing at NYU. "She wasn't having guest rappers like Eric B., she wasn't dressed in leather straps and doing street cred videos with Scorsese, she wasn't singing about social injustice like Janet… She had zero street cred."
"I think the thing with Whitney was she was marketed as pop right out the box," Michael Gonzales told me by phone. Gonzales has been writing about music with a strong concentration in black music for almost 30 years and currently writes the Slept On Soul column for Soulhead. "I think it was the way that she was marketed by Arista. Clive [Davis], even though he was known as being this kind of innovative marketer, he was also the guy who was used to big hits. He was doing Barry Manilow. That was kind of the culture he came from. He wanted to take this girl and turn her into a pop star, and I think the black audience might have felt a little ignored in the kind of sensitive way that people can be sometimes without even realizing it."
Davis, who founded Arista in 1975 and served as its president until 2000, admitted as much in the 2005 BBC documentary series Soul Deep: "I didn't try to make her an R&B artist. She was really a pop star with soulful roots, but a pop star." In his 2013 memoir, The Soundtrack of My Life, Davis wrote, "Frankly, I was color-blind, and perhaps a little naïve in that I didn't try to find pure R&B songs that only black-oriented stations could claim for their own."
"My success happened so quickly that when I first came out, black people felt 'she belongs to us,'" Whitney explained in the aforementioned Ebony piece. "And then all of a sudden the big success came and they felt I wasn't theirs anymore, that I wasn't within their reach. It was felt that I was making myself more accessible to whites, but I wasn't."
Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African & African American Studies at Duke, saw things differently. He said in Soul Deep, "Clearly there was an effort to make her the un-black black artist. That was part of selling Whitney, let's leave all this black stuff alone."
But "black stuff" wasn't the only thing that was being left alone. When Houston exploded onto the scene in 1985, she was as dazzling as a firework, but her personality was a dud. She spoke as if she were perpetually in the interview portion of a beauty pageant. She was 21 when her album came out, but she was generally dressed elegantly enough to look twice that age. Her forte was big, show-stopping ballads and polite dance-pop sung with stunning control and great clarity. Her ability seemed superhuman; she opened her mouth and this enormous sound emerged. She was annoyingly perfect.
"She came on the scene fully formed, but she was sterile," my friend Amy Linden told me over the phone. Linden has been writing about music for years and years, in the likes of Vibe and Rolling Stone. She also wrote the liner notes for Houston's 2000 greatest hits compilation. "It was like watching somebody hit basket after basket after basket. It was like, 'I know you can shoot, but let's see some moves.' I was a fan of her voice, but I thought, 'Where is she in all this?' I never got a sense of Whitney… There was no there there."
"At the time, I don't think I even knew too much about Whitney," recalled Gonzales. "I didn't realize that she was from Newark. I didn't know very much about her at all. I don't remember reading that many stories. I'm sure they were out, but I didn't really feel like a real connection with her music."
Perhaps more than any other contemporary superstar, she is in the strange position of having great mass popularity without eliciting great passion, of being liked but not particularly loved, especially in the Black community. Yeah, we buy her records, but do we buy her act? Last year's audience at the Soul Train Music Awards booed at the mere mention of her name. If that's any indication, some of us don't buy it. She just doesn't move us the way Aretha did, the way Anita does.
And so Whitney was considered by some as soulless, both as an artist and a human. On both related fronts she was sanitized. That's showbiz, though. Again and again throughout pop culture, we see humanity sacrificed for the sake of superstardom. For a modern example, see Beyoncé, who barely lets on that she has a personal life, much less reveals anything about it (a huge exception being her HBO documentary, which felt artificial). Though Beyoncé seems to identify most with Tina Turner, her presentation of herself as human perfection bordering on superhuman is pure early Whitney. Take Sam Smith, who boasts about "cleverly" writing around his homosexuality in his songs about unrequited gay love. Take any larger-than-life artist, basically, whose work outsizes persona, whose warts have not yet been revealed to the public.
What was best known about Whitney upon her emergence was her pedigree. Her mother Cissy was well known in the gospel world, and to a lesser degree, for her soul and disco output. Dionne Warwick was her cousin, Aretha Franklin was her "Auntie Ree" of no blood relation. Perhaps most crucial to Whitney's background is that she got her start singing in church. As a result, her streamlined, pop-appropriate approach to singing was considered by some to be self-betrayal.
As a result of these broad social changes, black culture, and especially R&B music, has atrophied. The music is just not as gutsy or spirited or tuned into the needs of its core audience as it once was. Compare the early Aretha Franklin to Whitney Houston. Franklin's music always relied heavily on the black inner-city experience, and especially on the black church. When she forgets that, she stumbles. Houston is extremely talented, but most of her music is so "color-blind," such a product of eighties crossover marketing, that in her commercial triumph is a hollowness of spirit that mocks her own gospel roots.
When I listen to early Whitney, I hear the compromise that George refers to, but I also do hear church. To ignore this as did Whitney's detractors, who screamed for artists with little to no evident gospel roots, is to ignore willfully. Though "Saving All My Love for You" and especially "The Greatest Love of All" have a Broadway sort of bombast, "You Give Good Love" is pure R&B (albeit of the smoothest variety). The album versions of "How Will I Know" and "Thinking About You" are dance pop that's heavy on the pop, but the 12" versions pulsate and contain a depth of sound present in a lot of the black-radio approved post-disco of the time (Kashif, who never really crossed over solo and created R&B radio-approved jams for Evelyn King and Melba Moore, produced the latter).
Still, King told me that while the church in Whitney's voice was palpable, it was "REALLY contained," and said that initially she was "more Diana Ross than Gladys Knight." Gonzales said she was "glossy," that Whitney was more Motown than Stax.
George did concede to Essence that "when she really cuts loose, she's got this great soulfulness, but she was marketed as a pop product." In that same article, Houston conceded that she was more likely to cut loose in a live setting than in the studio. That's part of what inspired this very piece—earlier this month, Arista released the CD/DVD set Whitney Houston Live: Her Greatest Performances. Her interpretations of her own works are more spontaneous than what you hear on her albums, her vocal runs more acrobatic. There is a sense of improvisation missing from her recordings. Repeatedly, she shows an intuition for exactly how much she can alter the way she sings a song so that it sounds fresh but retains its essence. Her interpretive genius is best understood in the way she commanded the stage.
To Essence, Whitney said that to those surprised by the electricity of her shows, her response was, "Can't you feel my heart on the record? Can't you feel my soul?"
It wasn't so easy to get the full picture of Whitney in the '80s, though. There was no Google, no YouTube. Whitney knew what she was capable of, and stadiums full of fans did as well, but those who saw her live show were a fraction of the tens of millions of people that purchased her first two albums.
Whitney seemed mostly confused by the backlash. In 1991, she told Arsenio Hall:
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They boo me at the Soul Train Awards…I don't really know what it's about. But I think that I've got a lot of flak about I sing too white or I sing…white or something like that. I think that maybe that's where it comes from. I haven't had the opportunity to ask why I get booed at the Soul Train Awards, but I grew up on Soul Train just like every other black kid, you know?...I do sing the way God intended for me to sing and I'm using what he gave me and I'm using it to the best of my ability.
To Essence she sounded defiant, a precursor to the snippy Nippy that would emerge more and more over time as the feedback piled up: "What's black? I've been trying to figure this out since I've been in the business. I don't know how to sing black—and I don't know how to sing white, either. I know how to sing. Music is not a color to me. It's an art."
To Ebony, she contextualized herself within pop inarguably: "I know what my color is. I was raised in a black community with black people, so that has never been a thing with me. Yet I've gotten flak about being a pop success, but that doesn't mean that I'm white… Pop music has never been all-white."
The weepy, string-laden ballads that made Whitney so famous remained fundamental to her artistic DNA , but the booing shifted the course of her career. Whitney could talk tough, but out of the other side of her mouth came evidence that she had internalized criticism. She admitted to Oprah Winfrey in 2009 that she stayed with Bobby Brown well after their relationship had run its course to prove wrong those who said it wouldn't last. Her thin skin made her angry—for about the last two decades of her life and career, she complained in interviews, on reality TV, in song about the scrutiny she'd endured. I can't help but wonder if she would have dropped out of the public (willingly—or worse) much earlier had she blossomed as an artist in the age of social media.
Then again, it's unlikely that the criticism directed at her would have been what it was in 1989, now that selling out is no longer something to be ashamed of. (Tune into an awards show and you can find one of pop culture's most beloved figures, Nicki Minaj, hawking multiple brands' goods.) Perhaps the factors would have leveled out for a Whitney coming of artistic age today.
In any event, the booing was "wakeup call" according to writer Barry Michael Cooper in Soul Deep. Linden said it "kicked Arista in the ass." Davis stops short of admitting as much in his memoir, but acknowledges some tinkering:
For Whitney's third album, it was clear that we needed to shore up her base in the black community. This was not a response to what happened at the Soul Train Awards or to any of the other criticisms of her, which Whitney and I never discussed. It just seemed the next logical step in her growth and progression as an artist. Up until this time, our goal had purely and simply been to find the best songs for her.
The result was 1990's new jack swing-influenced I'm Your Baby Tonight, which featured production by Babyface and L.A. Reid. The album spawned two U.S. pop No. 1s (the title track and "All the Man That I Need"), but it sold far less than Houston's first two smashes—its global tally is around 13 million. "It peaked at No. 3 on the pop charts," wrote Davis. "But was a No. 1 R&B album, so it fulfilled our objective of meaningfully crossing Whitney over to a very sizable African-American audience."
The accomplishment was relative (Whitney had peaked at No. 2 on the R&B chart, and the majority of her singles had experienced heavy black radio airplay), but crucial. Linden corroborates as much in her Greatest Hits liner notes:
The progression to songs that allowed Whitney to be both sophisticated and street, along with the reputation as a seriously solid live act, helped mute critics who sometimes dismissed her as a gifted vocalist, but one who needed more depth. The criticism, it should be noted, often came from those who held Whitney to some sort of realness litmus test. It wasn't cool in the early '90s to champion the elegance of a Babyface track or to accept the notion that an R&B singer didn't have to stomp and sweat.
In fact, Whitney was among the first megastars to benefit from the sort of reverse crossover that many black pop artists would successfully accomplish in the early '90s, as hip-hop's grip on pop tightened, eventually to the point of bending the very concept of what made music "commercial." What followed was the angular new jack swing fury of Michael Jackson's Dangerous album, the rapping on Prince's Diamonds & Pearls, the boom-bap beats on Janet Jackson's janet.
"All the R&B artists aiming for crossover credibility at the time felt the need to get a little tougher/more street around that moment," King wrote to me. "The whole concept of crossover that was so big in the '80s changed dramatically in the '90s. I think Mariah [Carey] and Mary J. [Blige]'s arrivals on the scene were big turning points, as was the hip-hop assault on pop (Uptown, Bad Boy, Dre/Snoop, etc.) but by the mid '90s, even the pop divas like Whitney and Mariah were going hardcore into 'urban' to stay afloat."
After the body of work that followed, including beat-heavier albums like 1998's My Love Is Your Love and 2002's …Just Whitney, as well as the gospel-dominated soundtrack to 1996's The Preacher's Wife, it's hard to imagine Whitney as anything but primarily R&B. Looking back, those who called her too white judged her too soon, but they also left a mark on Whitney that made her work to prove them wrong. They teased out her anger and revealed her insecurity. Whitney decried her critics, but she also acquiesced to their demands, and within that contradiction was a deep humanity that brought her back down to earth.
Plus, from I'm Your Baby Tonight on, her music became more consistently dynamic, looser, more heartily sung. Her personality deepened into something that was less reliant on a eye glimmer and teeth gleam. Something rawer, more honest. Compare her demeanor above from the 1986 Grammy Awards to that in this interview from 1991:
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And this one from 1995:
Compare them all to her 2003 Wendy Williams interview:
"I think that maybe she had to show people who she really was," Linden said. "Maybe they had her under wraps for so long that when she finally got some freedom, it went kablooey."
Kablooey indeed. Houston's persona eventually backfired all over pop culture. As her voice disintegrated, what we saw of Houston was almost all personality during the last decade or so of her career—when we saw her at all. Her greatest hits were insane interviews and Being Bobby Brown. People groused about her squandering her gift through her inertia and drug use, but what I saw was the emergence a diehard performer, someone who could not help but entertain regardless of what she did. She lives on today not just through her music, but through gifs of her exhibiting the sort of complex persona—witty and messy and mostly self-aware of both—that she revealed later in her career.
Whitney Houston Live: Her Greatest Performances contains only two tracks from the last decade of her life: "I Believe in You and Me" from the 2004 World Music Awards, and "I Didn't Know My Own Strength" from a 2009 performance on The Oprah Winfrey Show. The vast majority—13 out of 16 tracks—are from 1994 and before, while Whitney was still in good voice, before her musical perfection was tainted by her human reality. Clive Davis, ever the smoother and streamliner, produced the compilation.
"Picture this," Whitney told Ebony. "You wake up every day with a magnifying glass over you. Someone always is looking for something — somebody, somewhere is speaking your name every five seconds of the day, whether it's positive or negative. Like my friend Michael [Jackson] says, 'You want our blood but you don't want our pain.'"
By the end of her life, people were revolted by Whitney's behavior and disappointed by her diminished singing ability. A woman who was once widely criticized for being not human enough was for many, by the end of her life, too human to endure.
[Top image via Getty]