Whitney: Cultural icon of our era

21 Feb, 2012 - 22:02 0 Views

The Herald

aunt, Thelma Houston and her cousin, Dionne Warwick.
Her mother and her aunt were background vocalists for Elvis Presley. Her mother did the first version of the song “Suspicious Minds” which Elvis Presley upon hearing decided to cover and earn a hit record in the 1970s. Her music — vinyl, CD, MP3, and digital downloads — remains available for us to consult for the plural joys it brought into our lives, for her music marked the high and low points of a generation’s life globally.
Houston sold 170 million records in her career and in 2000 signed a US$100 million contract for six albums with Arista records, the company of Clive Davis who discovered and mentored her to global stardom. Whitney Houston had crossed an image threshold for an African American artist in American popular culture, in that she had “an across the board appeal”— a euphemism for “crossing over” (which-in the American context-means she appealed to European American audiences and African American) — receiving high MTV rotation.
Houston appealed to the European American template of female beauty — she was thin, long legged, well spoken, young, virginal, civilised in her sexuality (i.e., she was chaste in image), obedient and loyal. These co-ordinates of beauty appealed to young European American males and did not threaten the insecurities of European American females, Whitney, in image terms, was not out to get your man, she was your best friend.
These subliminal messages in the image constructed to market Houston’s music, were the amniotic sac of seduction within which her music was grounded. They were the hidden presuppositions of the songs selected, witness her 1993 Dolly Parton cover “I Will Always Love You”, “You Give Good Love,” “Saving All My Love for You”, “How Will I Know” to name but a few.
The creation and manipulation of American cultural values was conducted in a corporate profit-questing crucible in the American entertainment and industrial complex. The values promoted by this global corporate complex were consistent with the dominant operational principles of neoliberalism, the disciplined autistic specialised focused intense singular pursuit of high profits at all costs which made of cultural studies and psychology scientific understanding of human behaviour that served as arsenals of knowledge in a war for global markets and profits.
Houston sold 170 million records at an average value of US$2-$3 billion globally. This figure can be increased if gross revenue for her filmic projects is added to the above (Waiting to Exhale (1995), The Preacher’s Wife (1996). It is these figures and the corporate frenzy defining their pursuit which marked the corporate existence of Whitney Houston. She was channelled to generate hyper profits for the entertainment corporation to which she was contracted at both great personal gain and personal cost.
The gains we know of, the cost we would rather not, though the public declarations of their varied nature reveal a private pain born of participation in an economic value system which in its singularity of profit making purpose was equally singular in its autistic insensitivity to the private costs to its agent of value (for it) and human being (for the rest of us).
Her talent in the corporate system overwhelmed her personality trapping her in a time warp of eternal youthfulness when a mature adult of 48 years of age at the time of her passing. She was a commodity and struggled to be more. She was a public possession and had to find her own form of private solace. The flight from such psychic dissonance led her to embrace mood altering drugs to her eventual detriment.
Houston’s search for a broader more wholesome life left her abandoned and adrift in a sea of indifference. She was not humanly connected in a manner equal to her internal needs. Some would read this as yearning for God some for a more rational solution to a private misery, by her actions at the end of her life she had made an effort to discover for herself her own needs. She tried. One lesson of her life that is least likely to be given shrift in the plethora of commentary to be unleashed about her life is the authoritarian singularity of the corporate profit motive and the neoliberal age within which it was unleashed, for Whitney’s career was heralded during its rise ascendancy and decline as a rational way to organise production and distribute resources.
Its impersonality and logic are indifferent to human need, meeting human need in such an industry called for strength of character, compassion, intellectual understanding and emotional discipline that can only be found beyond the boundaries of the industry.
Whitney Houston was, with her divorce and final album “I Look to You”, reinventing her career and private life and in the process attempting to master an independence and courage of spirit the moral shortcomings of her industry, marriage, youth and sycophancy of false friends, delayed.

l Charles Simon-Aaron, is an autonomous intellectual and author on political leadership, philosophy and global political and economic issues, Mugabe: Land Wars, Resource Nationalism and Empire.

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