But Where is the Music?

The Houstons: On Our Own reality TV series wrapped up a couple of nights ago, leaving behind unfinished story lines and failing to convince a creeped out, skeptical viewership, at least on my part, about the wisdom of doing this.  I didn’t watch much of the 14 hours of programming that they cobbled together raiding Bobbi Kristina’s psyche over the death of her beloved mother, but I followed the show through secondary means, like recaps and commentary from vloggers like the ladies below.

Does following the series second hand like that give me the right to form harsh opinions about the show? Oh yes it does! Think of it as reading customer reviews at Amazon.com before you put a product into your online basket. In any case, some of my opinions were formed firsthand. I skimmed through the first couple of episodes, which covered Mother’s Day weekend. There was a family brunch, a service at New Hope Baptist Church, which Krissy did not attend, and a visit to Whitney’s grave that forced me to walk away from my computer. I couldn’t watch that baby sit on the ground in that cemetery and cry over her dear mother, nor could I handle Cissy make an emotional case for her baby’s baby to keep in touch with her. So the computer watched itself while I stepped into the other room and folded some laundry.

The problem with this show was that it exploited Whitney’s death so that Pat could fulfill the reality show that she had been developing for some time. This wasn’t a documentary about a musical family, because there were not enough active, working musicians honing their craft and making things happen, like on “Braxton Family Values.”

• We didn’t get enough of Cissy or Dionne Warwick.

• We didn’t get to go into Damon Elliot’s studio.

• Gary kept his exceptional tenor to himself for the most part.

• CeCe Winans dropped in for only one measly episode, and there wasn’t even a family singalong at that beautiful white grand piano at Pat’s house. What’s it there for? To hold up picture frames? Krissy doesn’t seem to be proficient at piano, judging by the meeting that she had with Ricky Minor at one point in the series, and the fact that you never saw her play. That was surprising, given the first-rate musical heritage and connections she was surrounded with growing up. Even Bobbi Kristina’s father is a talented songwriter, one has to admit. In the same class as Ike Turner and Chris Brown, two other legitimately talented musicians, who were railroaded by the media.

So without much songwriting, album making or shows, aside from the heavy lifting that Cissy did for rehearsals for the BET Awards tribute and her clips from Gospelfest (that was me waaaay back in the last row at the back of the house, BTW!), what was the point of broadcasting a show about a family of Houstons? All we saw, aside from the contrived pseudo-dramas that fill up reality TV air time, were images of Krissy in the emotional throes of grief, Krissy being taken for granted by that feckless young man that Whitney took in, and Krissy getting very bad advice from cousins and uncles to reconcile with her father.

I don’t want to spend a lot of time criticizing Black men, partly because they’re making it way too easy, but let me just say that young adult children like Bobbi Kristina do not have an obligation to strive for a relationship with a poor parent. In fairness to his convoluted denials that he hit Whitney, let’s lay aside the conflicting reports about how she sustained a deep cut on her left cheek in Capri, reports from witnesses of her screaming for help from inside her limo during an argument in a mall parking lot in Hawaii, and the revelations that Whitney was cussed out in front of her mother and father in law, and then spat on in front of her child. All of that, including his lengthy rap sheet, are in the past. If the guy is still getting DUIs, and doesn’t pick up his daughter’s calls, then distance is required. Whoever it is, bloggers or whoever, who feel that his presence would be a good influence on her life now … need to wise up and stop interfering. They are training Bobbi Kristina to lower her standards and somehow accept the poor behavior from the first male role model in her life, which could carry over to her accepting wretched treatment from the men she chooses later. And didn’t the vloggers get incensed over an incident where the stray sped off in “his car,” (probably financed with Houston dollars) leaving Krissy somewhere at an event? I saw a preview clip of Krissy sitting on the ground in the night hunched over a phone trying to call this dude. Is this what Whitney would want for her baby, and for it to be on blast like that? This is not a good pattern, it should not be encouraged, and it should not be worked out on national TV and on the Web for everyone to see. Like her dearly departed mother said to Oprah in 2009 “some things are better left unsaid.” And where are the grown men in her life to grab that boy by the collar and make him apologize to her? *Sigh*

If I want to witness family dysfunction, missteps and tragic judgment calls, I could walk down one of the particularly ragged streets in my city, or ride mass transit or something. I won’t be subscribing to cable for this display of nonsense, mainly because they’ve connected it to the name of my first and foremost favorite pop singer. I wish I could say with confidence that the show is over and done with in its current form, as it should be. But I have the feeling that Robert Sharenow, the executive vice president of programming at Lifetime, will let this trash live another season, because he and other network brass seem desperate to race our collective national intellect to the bottom of the gutter in pursuit of ratings and ad revenue. After all, they have to come up with a way to beat Bravo TV’s housewives flipping tables, starting brawls at country clubs and working stripper poles, right?

I hope Bobbi Kristina follows all of Ricky Minor’s advice. She could be a polished, strong contralto with a flourishing career. Add her voice type to her grandmother’s soprano in her prime, and her mother’s mezzo-soprano, and she could complete the packet of Drinkard voice types. Then the music could go on, and she could begin to control her own narrative, instead of leaving it to others.

From Love Story to Horror Show

More than eight months ago millions of people hunkered over their laptop, tablet and smart phone screens to watch Whitney Houston’s funeral streaming over the Web, and by now, you know that one of the highlights was Kevin Costner’s tender and moving speech about the late singer.

In the broadest sense of the word, he told a love story—how they met, developed a tight bond, and how death parted them. You can either believe that he was in love with her romantically at one point, which seems obvious to me, or take it that he cared very much about her as a friend. Either way, it was a tiny, privileged peek into the psyche of a lady who was fascinating because of her astounding and versatile vocal gifts, her beauty and her appealing personality. It satisfied some of our endless curiosity about Whitney, but held back just enough to respect the privacy that she always treasured.

It would have been nice for music lovers to grieve and preserve her legacy after that terrible Saturday in February, and for Whitney to rest in peace. But for some odd reason, the decision makers in her family aren’t choosing to let it happen that way. By now you know that “The Houstons: On Our Own” is about to debut on the Lifetime channel, and that it’s premised on how the Houstons grieve and adjust to a new normal without Whitney. Critics say its exploitative.

Pat Houston, the late singer’s sister-in-law and business manager, says that’s not the case. It’s hard to take her word for it, though, because she appears in the show and plays a key role in its development. According to news stories, the real genesis to this new series (actually, I hope it flops and gets pulled) was a show called Power BrokeHers, which follows the lives of women CEOs and high-level executives as they balance their careers and families. That concept sounded fun and interesting, actually! But it seems rather opportunistic to veer away from that after Whitney’s death and change the show into something completely focused on Pat and her family, and then use Whitney Houston’s death as the driving plot point! And as I recall, Whitney didn’t participate in the Power BrokHers pilot, nor was she in the one promotional trailer I found for the series.

PowerBrokHers Sizzle<

It sounds like Whitney was simply unwilling to open up her personal life for reality TV again, and after “Being Bobby Brown,” who could blame her? It also casts a very suspect tinge over this whole ‘On Our Own’ project, that Pat Houston seems to have found the “hook” she needed to land a full cycle of episodes for a series. I sure don’t like to think that way, but that’s how the circumstances are aligning themselves.

It gets worse. Much of ‘On Our Own’ will also focus on the daily life of Whitney’s only child, Bobbi Kristina.  And as far as Bobbi Kristina is concerned, it’s hard enough for 19-year-olds to figure out who they are and find their place in the world without having your private life made public. Don’t we all have silly decisions and actions from that phase of our lives that we’d rather keep from the whole world? It seems only fair that Bobbi Kristina should have some measure of anonymity and privacy as she deals with life without her mother.

I don’t quite understand Pat Houston’s claim to fame here, or why I should watch the inner workings of her domestic life. Does she manage other singers or recording artists? The most I was able to find out about Pat Houston’s other business ventures was that she has a company called Marion P Candles, Inspired By Whitney Houston (got to get that promotional tag line in there), and a clothing store called Celebrity Consignment Boutique. OK, great. She is a busy business woman, but I still don’t like the premise of this show.

This is all a moot point. The episodes have been shot, edited and are ready to broadcast to Heaven only knows how many millions of households. Readers, I prefer to remember the Whitney portrayed in magazine interviews, sit downs with skillful and intelligent television hosts and sources other than the muckraking mediums out there, including reality television. I prefer looking through a tiny peephole into the beautiful story that Kevin Costner shared, rather than have all access to an emotional and delicate healing process that really shouldn’t be available to me at all.

Samson and Whitney

The ‘Sparkle’ remake that opened today was about updating a groundbreaking African-American cult classic for a younger audience with more modern sensibilities. When you exclude that horrible night in February before the Grammy awards, you would still have an event that returned a fresh, luminous Whitney to the big screen. The return of a musical legend and box-office heavyweight to the biggest stage in entertainment. During the red carpet warm up event, the reporter mentioned that ‘Sparkle’ had sold the most tickets of all other movies that week. Quite an achievement. This is almost 20 years after Houston’s breakout portrayal of Rachel Marron opposite Kevin Costner in ‘The Bodyguard,’ and yet another testament to Whitney’s enduring appeal to the public.

Smoky Robinson’s appearance and comments made for the third-best moment of the event. He really loved her and called her “his baby!”

When Jordin Sparks saw him and embraced him, it almost made me mist up. Their embrace was sweet, memorable, and I can only imagine what an amazing photo threesome Jordin, Whitney and Smoky would have made.

Anyway, the stat on the ticket sales settled a lingering question for me: Was Whitney strong enough, in health, spirit and voice, to help carry this movie? She has a supporting role, whereas Jordin is the lead, but let’s be honest. This was a big, big movie, with enough room for two stars, and Whitney is the other one. We were all looking for her to return to form with this film.

Shortly after hearing about Whitney’s death, I thought about parallels in her life and that of the Biblical character Samson. It’s either instructional doctrine or an allegory, depending on where you are on the metaphysical spectrum. It’s a familiar story either way: a man appointed as judge over Israel who is lead a consecrated life and is blessed with superhuman strength and matchless public appeal. But like a lot of other gifted and charismatic men, Samson strayed. Felled by a woman, of all things, sent by his enemies to destroy him. Delilah was a transparent minx, taking all his bait whenever she asked about the source of his strength. But Samson must have been thick, and he failed to recognize what a threat she was. He revealed the secret of his strength. Then came his public humiliation, gradual redemption and last stand.

This is Whitney’s first movie in a long time, and it turned out to be her last stand. ‘Sparkle’ took a while to complete because of three deaths associated, two aside from hers. Aaliyah was the favorite to play the title role until she died in a plane crash about 12 years ago, and a famed author also passed away. But it’s also her last stand. A chance to shine again as the rare, inimitable talent and true beauty that she was. I say “true beauty” on purpose to quote Costner who described her that way just before her album “I Look to You” came out in 2009. (I have a sneaking suspicion—though totally baseless—that Costner had a massive crush on Whitney at a certain point. LOL.) The album displays the singing of a former superhuman vocalist whose gift, like Samson’s had been cut down. She sounded not ordinary, but noticeably different from that supernova we had all been accustomed to hearing. It is unfair to ask any vocalist to sound exactly the same after blasting her three-octave, mezzo soprano voice for 30 years. But Whitney was and is recognizable on that album. Her essence and “true beauty” shone through on that album. It’s undeniable. The high notes and elasticity that astounded the world were diminished, but not totally gone. The technical mastery and passion were all there. When she sings “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength,” I feel just as moved and tingly as I did when she sang “Where Do Broken Hearts Go.” That is true beauty, at least in my view.

‘Sparkle’ has no direct bearing on the theme of this blog. Most black women everywhere, whether in an interracial marriage or not, though, have an interest in Whitney. We all wanted to see her survive and thrive. I have plans to see ‘Sparkle’ next week, with a friend, after the initial wave of moviegoers. I hate the noisy chatty crowds, and the second weekends weed them out. No doubt I’ll hear very soon whether Whitney, like Samson, shook off the pain and regrets of the past, and the taunts of the Philistines who tried to pull her down. We’ll see whether Whitney called on God for another burst of strength and brought the house down.

A Heaven-Sent Voice Returns Home

Give me one moment in time, when I’m more than I thought I would be

When all of my dreams are a heartbeat away, and the answers are all up to me

About a year ago, I steered our family station wagon through the narrow hoary streets of East Orange, consulting a scrap of paper with directions to a health food store. I drove past a rambling red brick building marked with a monumental sign on the threadbare front lawn: the Whitney E. Houston Academy of Performing Arts. The building was set far back from the street, and the lawn was framed with what I thought was skimpy landscaping. I wondered about that place of learning: Was it a district, charter, magnet or private school? Was it well supported by its namesake and benefactors? If so, couldn’t the supporters have done more to spruce it up, especially since the namesake has such a polished public image?

An uncomfortable feeling followed the first thought: By 2011, Whitney Houston had fallen from grace. Years of drug use, to which she publicly admitted and a hard-to-break cigarette habit, seemed responsible for damaging her uniquely glorious voice. Her public struggles to leave a wacky marriage and overcome substance abuse had taken apart the persona of a charming, articulate, poised and intelligent young woman with the world at her feet.

Yet Whitney was not, at heart, the coarse-talking riff raff that mean-spirited detractors say she “really was.” Her real, actual history was of a mesmerizingly cute impish girl, in middle-class East Orange, NJ.  The music world has its nobility and peerage, and she hailed from the House of Drinkard-Houston, LOL. Look them up, including her mother, aunts and cousins, and it becomes easier to process how someone could be that gifted vocally. Whitney was the gift that kept on giving. She was also a ground-breaking and highly sought after teen fashion model, with a thriving career that was translating nicely into television roles. She appeared on Gimme A Break, SilverSpoons and was offered the part of Sandra Huxtable on The Cosby Show.  By the time her music career had taken off, she had already traveled the world with her mother and Dionne Warwick, met and worked with the likes of Chaka Khan and Luther Vandross, and developed a work ethic that made her very appealing to music and casting directors who needed reliable, talented people to complete projects. One way or another, Whitney was destined for stardom. So all this talk about her “fake” public image is pure nonsense from cruel, hardened cynics.

Yet there was no doubt that years of being hounded by an inhumane press, lashings from an ungrateful and vulgar public, all compounded by marital betrayal worsened a natural proclivity to abuse substances. Whitney seemed as lost emotionally as I was geographically at that moment. She was working on reclaiming her former glory, directions in hand, her destination in view. Looking at the school, I silently prayed that the woman would continue her comeback, finally conquer her problems and enjoy a natural, long life. As much as I was aware of her problems, I couldn’t bash her and write her off: Her voice, clear, strong beautifully honed as European leaded crystal, had brightened many of my dark and moody adolescent days. It ministered to me, and I couldn’t drag her like some of these other sickos were doing.

To say that last week’s word of Whitney’s death shocked me is an understatement. She had too much in common with me, my cousins and contemporaries for any of us to filter this news out as yet another troubled, brilliant singer who could not save herself from ruin. Like us, she was black, talented, grew up in church, nestled amidst a family of talented, resourceful and driven women. She came from hardscrabble inner city surroundings in northern New Jersey and achieved—here is where she was quite special—phenomenal and unrivaled success at her craft. Yet she maintained a presence in the state and always owned a home here. It is safe to say that all Jersey girls are loyal, and no amount of fame or success will make her pull up roots from the state completely. She always leaves a piece of her heart here, and comes back to visit every now and then.

I couldn’t have abandoned Whitney then, and cannot now. The public still does not know exactly what caused her death last week, although it has been widely reported that she was found underwater in the bathtub of her hotel room. Part of me is still hoping that it was all an accident, and that her vices did not play a part in her demise.  There is also a temptation to blame her tempestuous marriage for keeping her mired in drug use, even if that relationship wasn’t responsible for introducing her to cocaine or whatever else she might have used to self-medicate. Some might say that had she devoted that singular voice to gospel music, she would have avoided the risky behaviors that attends the popular and R&B music scenes so often, and she might still be alive and thriving. But gospel is a well-trod hunting ground for R&B talent, and with her connections and obvious talent, Whitney would have faced unrelenting pressure to change genres. No, she was destined for the musical career that she had. And there is no guarantee that had she overcome addictions, her personal relationships would have fared as well. She was known to be stubborn, and those personalities can be hard to live with. And yet, I am still in her corner as much as I can be, hoping that she finds eternal peace.

I remember watching a video of Whitney Houston belting out the Star-Spangled Banner months ago and thinking: Is such a phenomenon really gone forever? Other singers have a higher range, but few had the crystal purity, exquisite refinement, sweetness and fire, and of course resilient strength of Whitney’s vocals in its heyday. And her heyday was a very long period.  The signature song “I Look to You,” from her comeback album, went gold, even though her vocals had been clearly diminished. She displayed a level and quality of singing that is still out of reach for a lot of people. Had she found the inner strength to save herself, to preserve her gift, there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that her second career act would have been unassailably awesome.

I can accept that tragic untimely deaths happen all the time, and to much younger people. It is upsetting that Whitney did not seem to overcome her demons, worse that her voice seemed tarnished forever and that she might have had to live to see her glory fade, and regret it bitterly. Now all of that pining has to come to an end. Whitney’s funeral gets underway Saturday, and everyone will have to begin letting go of their hopes and dreams for her at that point. Yet it feels unnecessary and cruel that someone who had the support of mentors, protégés, family and fans, and who was pressing her way toward perfection again would be kept back from it. It just seems wrong that a singer whose voice embodied the American ethos of striving and moving forward should have slipped under the surface of the water for good.