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The making of a pop icon: remembering Whitney Houston

Amanda Parris
Listen to Marvin's Room, Feb 9th 2018

Marvin's Room with Amanda Parris on CBC Radio


Legendary music producer Clive Davis is not simply in the music business; he’s in the icon-making business. The man with no musical training but an ear for the sound of the moment is credited with signing Janis Joplin in 1967, turning Barry Manilow into a star in 1975 and introducing the world to Alicia Keys. The one artist he is truly recognized for moulding into a legend, though, is the late, great Whitney Houston.

In the ‘80s, Davis had a vision for Arista Records. He wanted a pop star whose career he could steer, a singer who would be embraced by households around the world. So when he met teenage Houston, he saw in her an artist that he could make into a pop icon. In his 1974 memoir, Davis famously wrote, “An artist can be extremely gifted and yet remain unsuccessful if he or she records the wrong music, or gets an image that confuses potential audiences.”

So what did that mean for Houston musically? It meant establishing a sound that was accessible and acceptable. Nothing too funky, nothing too soulful. Nothing too Black. Davis didn’t want a female James Brown. He wanted the next Barbra Streisand or Barry Manilow.

His plan worked: Houston was an instant star. She was the first recording artist to have seven consecutive No. 1 singles on the Billboard 100. Between 1985 and 1988, Houston was at the peak of her popularity.

But that popularity was not universal. Houston attended the 1988 and 1989 Soul Train Music Awards, and when her name was called on both occasions as a nominee there were loud boos in the audience, with some reportedly yelling “White-ney!” from the balcony section.

In the 2017 documentary Whitney: Can I Be Me, Houston's former touring saxophonist Kirk Whalum states that getting booed "was not only tough for Whitney, it was devastating. I don't think she ever recovered from it. It was one of those boxes that was checked, that when she ultimately perished, it was because of those boxes."

Houston realized that her marketing as a pop icon had shut out Black audiences. Renowned music critic Nelson George wrote about Houston in his 1988 book The Death of Rhythm and Blues: “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 ‘colour-blind,’ such a product of '80s crossover marketing, that in her commercial triumph is a hollowness of spirit that mocks her own gospel roots.”

After that night, Houston began pushing back against the creative parameters set by her record label and taking more control over her sound. She convinced Davis to hire Babyface and L.A. Reid to help her craft a more R&B-oriented sound.

By the time she died, Houston was known as one of the greatest icons in music history amongst all audiences.

Marvin's Room playlist for Feb. 9, 2018

  1. Whitney Houston, “How Will I know”
  2. DeBarge, “I Like It”
  3. Craig David feat. Goldlink, “Live in the Moment”
  4. Manila Grey, “Eastbound”
  5. Chris LaRocca, “One Thing”
  6. The Impressions, “It’s All Right”
  7. O.V. Wright, “Let’s Straighten it Out”
  8. Mary J. Blige, “Mighty River”
  9. Jayd Ink, “Truth Is”
  10. Destiny’s Child, “Emotion”
  11. Meagan de Lima, “Unfold Me”
  12. Charlotte Day Wilson, “Nothing New”