The accident that resulted in a serious head injury was the latest roadblock that almost ended August’s career before it began. August had fought his way up from what he calls “a broken family,” to a record contract and a large dose of success in the Los Angeles music industry. Industry turmoil threatened to stall his career, but he released a debut album that went to #1 and won multiple awards. Just before the release of his much-anticipated sophomore album, he was hospitalized with a serious head injury from the skateboarding accident. Although he still suffers from the injury and is susceptible to pneumonia, heat exhaustion, and other maladies, he returned to work just months after the injury. (more…)
Life is full of surprises, and sometimes, so is pop music. In recent weeks, it’s recovered its long-dormant ability to shock, or at least catch us off guard with the unlikely hit, or the unexpected comeback.
Several months ago, I never dreamed I would ever ask the question that is the title of this article. It had been more than twenty-five years since Lionel Richie’s commercial heyday, and on the charts, he had been succeeded by younger romantic leads in pop and R&B many times over (Babyface, Usher, Ne-Yo, among others).
Then came one of those surprise developments seldom seen in pop anymore: On Billboard magazine’s Top 200 album chart for the week following the March 26 release of Tuskegee, Richie’s first studio album since 2009’s Just Go (which didn’t make the US Top 20 and failed to go gold), he debuted at No. 2 with first-week sales of 199,000 copies, right behind Madonna’s latest, MDNA.
There’s a scene”actually, several of them”in the 2011 film My Week with Marilyn in which an insecure Marilyn Monroe (exactingly detailed by Oscar nominee Michelle Williams) gets an ego boost from Susan Strasberg, her acting coach. You’re a great actress, Strasberg insists, on repeat, as if that makes it fact.
It’s hard to watch the movie now and not draw parallels between Monroe and Whitney Houston, both haunted by demons, both under-appreciated at the end. Over the last decade or so of Houston’s life, as her career and reputation nosedived, someone in her camp probably was doing the same thing for her.
There was a publicist at her record label, Arista Records, who downplayed Houston’s personal drama in the late ’90s when I asked if the drug rumors were true. “Yes,” the rep admitted. “But it’s not as bad as they say it is.” Then came the Strasberg moment: “She’s still amazing.”
During the week following Houston’s April 11 death, that’s what everyone said”only in past tense. As the tributes poured in, Houston wasn’t around to hear the thunderous praise. She had become yet another cautionary tale of what substance abuse can do to a sparkling image and red-hot career and how, sometimes, death is the only thing that can restore their luster.
We will always love her now, even if, in her final decade, many of us barely showed her any love. Some might say Houston got the coverage and reputation she deserved. Too bad it took her death to remind many of us how much she’d contributed to pop and to the soundtrack of the ˜80s and ˜90s.
Death becomes fallen stars. Michael Jackson’s singles and albums re-entered the charts in the weeks after he left us in 2010. Etta James saw significant chart action for the first time in decades after she passed away on January 20. And Houston finally had the hit single that had eluded her all of this century, as “I Will Always Love You,” which had spent 14 weeks at No. 1 in 1992 and 1993, re-entered Billboard’s Hot 100 at No. 7, three notches above Madonna’s new single, before ascending upward to No. 3.
Before her death, I can’t recall the last time I’d read anything positive about Houston. Most of the articles focused on her drug issues and her shaky performances, accompanied by the most unflattering photos advertising and circulation revenue could buy. But once she was gone, the songbird’s wings were restored. Now that a few weeks have passed, and once the autopsy report is in, perhaps the media will tip the delicate balance and return to slamming her.
As I watched the outpouring of grief, I thought about all of the under-celebrated greats who are still with us, particularly the soul divas of Houston’s heyday, the Shirley Murdocks, the Miki Howards, the Stephanie Mills, the Angela Winbushes. If the deaths of Teena Marie, Vesta Williams and now Whitney Houston have taught us anything, it’s that great voices may live forever, but the bodies that contain them don’t. They sang the songs that make us think, “Those were the days.” Will Katy Perry’s latest single inspire that kind of reaction in 2037?
Unlike Murdock, Howard, Mills, Winbush, Marie, Williams, and too many others, Houston got her due, paid in full”for a time. One of the great tragedies of Teena Marie’s death in December of 2010 is that such a supremely gifted singer-songwriter was known to the masses for one song only, “Lovergirl,” a Top 5 hit from 1984. Vesta Williams never even got above No. 55 on the Hot 100. Can we get an Amen for the others while they’re still around to hear it?
Unsung, TV One’s Behind the Music-style series that pulls under-sung former soul stars out from mothballs, is a great start, but don’t ˜80s R&B hitmakers like Evelyn Champagne King, Ray Parker Jr. and Freddie Jackson”all of whom have been featured on Unsung”deserve the same mainstream coverage as Adam Ant, whose Australian comeback tour was recently featured on the front page of The Australian daily newspaper?
Yes, at least Houston had her day. I’ve been recalling anecdotes about her from my early years as a magazine writer and editor in New York City. At a listening release party for the Waiting to Exhale soundtrack in 1995, Babyface, who’d written and produced most of the album, called Houston “the greatest singer of all time,” a sentiment that was seconded over and over after her passing.
Brandy, whom I interviewed for People magazine in 1994, when she was fifteen and still on her first single, stood firm in her admiration to the end. All those years ago, when I asked her whom she most wanted to meet, she told me how disappointed she had been with her one encounter with Houston. “She just shook my hand and said, ‘Nice to meet you. Good luck. Keep reaching for your dreams. It wasn’t anything personal, so in my mind, I haven’t met her yet.”
Eventually, she’d not only get the meeting she wanted, she’d work with her, too, in the 1997 TV movie Cinderella. One of the most disturbing things I’ve seen on YouTube all year is a video interview with Brandy, Monica and Arista titan Clive Davis, who’d guided Houston to stardom, taped two days before her death.
In the clip, the singers talked about their upcoming performance at Davis’s annual pre-GRAMMY party, and about Houston, her talent and her supportive nature. They had no way of knowing how terribly wrong things would turn out, but, unlike much of the press”which, in recent years, had been more focused on Houston’s vices than her voice, unless it was to slam it for no longer being the powerful instrument it had once been”Brandy and Monica hadn’t wavered in their appreciation.
Neither, to hear him tell it, did Kevin Costner, who spoke at Houston’s funeral at the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, NJ. As I watched, though, I couldn’t help but wonder, what he had done for her lately. Perhaps Costner and Houston had maintained a tight friendship in the years after they costarred in The Bodyguard, but considering how infrequently they’d publicly acknowledged each other in the last twenty years, his final testimonial came out of nowhere. He’d saved her in The Bodyguard, he said. Why didn’t he do the same in real life?
It would have been a lofty aspiration for sure, but I’m sure he’s not the only one wishing he’d appreciated Houston more in her later years, even after her voice had become a show-stopper for all the wrong reasons. The moral of this story: You really don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. So celebrate life”and talent”today, while it’s still with us. You never know what loss tomorrow might bring.
Every decade lives twice. Each one seems to get a second shot about twenty years after the fact. The ’50s were hot again in the ’70s (which might be why Happy Days was one of TV’s biggest hits). The ’60s resurfaced in the ’80s (as did tie-dye t-shirts and the British invasion), and Saturday night fever flared up one more time in the ’90s (though that didn’t stop the film 54 from flopping).
We’ve been stuck in the ’80s for a while now, but the ’90s are coming around again. I recently attended a ’90s party at a nightclub in Sydney, Australia, and the dance floor was packed with the retro-obsessed. The beats were technotronic indeed, but thanks to the varied playlist, I remembered that there was so much more to the decade in music than grunge and Europop. (Bell Biv DeVoe‘s “Do Me” and Elastica‘s “Connection” provided particularly pleasing trips down memory lane.) Here are five reasons why the ’90s rocked even harder than you might recall.
1. Sisters with voices ruled. And I’m not just talking about Sisters with Voices (otherwise known as SWV). TLC was arguably the most unique multi-platinum girl group ever, while En Vogue was the most glamorous one since the Supremes. Solo stars like Mariah Carey, Toni Braxton, Mary J. Blige, Celine Dion and Sarah McLachlan joined the hit parade, and Whitney Houston could still raise the roof”and she did with the soundtrack for The Bodyguard. Aside from Adele and Beyoncé (when she’s not huffing, puffing and trying way too hard to bring the house down), none of today’s female hitmakers can match the fierce ruling divas of the ’90s for sheer vocal power.
2. Rock & roll was king. Grunge may have been a relatively short-lived turning point, but for a moment there, the music was actually more important than the marketing. Thanks to bands like Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and Radiohead (all of whose platinum success seemed more accidental than calculated), Britpop (Blur vs. Oasis was so much better than Kings of Leon vs. Glee or the lead singers of Coldplay and Muse being married to Hollywood), and the grrrl power of female and female-driven acts like Bjí¶rk, P.J. Harvey, Alanis Morrisette, Hole, Belly, the Breeders and L7, rock and alternative music was both popular and interesting.
3. Stars were born, not manufactured on television and YouTube. This year, Rebecca Black went viral on YouTube and became a “star” without ever actually having a hit. (“Friday” topped out on Billboard’s Hot 100 at No. 58, 24 notches lower than the Glee remake.) And nothing against American Idol” it’s given us some bona fide, hit-making talents (Kelly Clarkson, Fantasia, Carrie Underwood and Adam Lambert, among them)”but it’s also gave us William Hung! When music stars are created instantly (in Hung’s case, due to an extreme lack of talent) or groomed in front of our very eyes, pop stardom starts to lose its mystique. Clarkson’s fame will never seem as hard-won as Celine Dion‘s; Carrie Underwood will never be as good a story as Shania Twain; and I’d trade soulful, one-hit wonders like Dionne Farris and Des’ree for Fantasia every day of the week. At least we never had to watch them almost self-destruct in public. Which brings us to…
4. Less was more. Before Twitter, YouTube and tabloid media overload, pop stars always left us wanting more. Now they reveal every thought and all of the minutiae of their lives via endless Twitter updates. (Sean Kingston recently tweeted a photo of himself surrounded by medical equipment while recovering from a jet-ski accident in Miami that nearly cost him his life. Too much?) The tabloids give us 24/7 access, showing them doing just about everything except going to the bathroom (including having sex!). And we can catch them whenever we want to on YouTube (and make them seem more popular than they actually are by continuously pressing play in order to increase their “views”) and watch them falling and bombing onstage, tangling with the paparazzi, and getting prickly with TV interviewers before doffing their shirts and hitting the streets of New York City.
Lauryn Hill was one of the biggest stars of the late ’90s yet she always managed to sidestep overexposure. Where is she now? God only knows (though it recently was revealed that she’s pregnant with her sixth child). If only Amy Winehouse, her critically acclaimed late-’00s equivalent, had been able to fall apart in the privacy of her own home.
5. Courtney Love was far more daring than Lady Gaga. I’ll admit it: I miss Courtney Love. Whatever you thought about her music, the lead singer of Hole was never boring. Take away Lady Gaga’s freaky-creepy visuals, though, and all you’re left with is a talented but over-earnest, politically correct pop star. She’s says all the right things, but listen closely”none of it is even slightly provocative. Her carefully considered soundbites are intended to be up with underdogs and offensive to no one. Even her pro-gay agenda is as respectful as possible to the political right. Just once, I’d like to see Gaga get naked and sexy (for someone who wears so little clothing, she’s remarkably, and safely, asexual), or totally lose it, throwing good intentions out the window and engaging in a public bitchfest. Isn’t the moral majority asking for it?
20 Essential ’90s Albums
Annie Lennox – Diva
Babyface – For the Cool in You
Belly – Star
Bjí¶rk – Post
The Cardigans – Gran Turismo
Dolly Parton – The Grass Is Blue
Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach – Painted from Memory
John Anderson – Seminole Wind
Kate Bush – The Red Shoes
k.d. lange – Ingenue
Mary J. Blige – My Life
Morrissey – Vauxhaull and I (or Your Arsenal)
Neil Young – Harvest Moon
Neneh Cherry – Homebrew
Portishead – Dummy
Radiohead – The Bends
R.E.M. – Automatic for the People (or Out of Time or New Adventures in Hi-Fi)
Sarah McLachlan – Fumbling Towards Ecstasy
Suede – Coming Up