by BRITTANY JULIOUS
Last year, I browsed a small record collection at a vintage store. In the bins I found early Grace Jones singles and Nu Shooz albums, but she was nowhere to be found. "Do you have any Whitney Houston?" I asked. I had been thinking about her more than normal. It is only lately that I can begin to break down the people, places, and moments that shaped my existence. An overwhelming sense of nostalgia shapes my actions. I am discovering what I’ve always known, but never appreciated. Houston fit in nicely.
I went home disappointed. Later I pulled up her album covers.
On one, Houston is front and center. Her hair is pulled back from her face and she wears a Grecian gown. It is her self-titled debut, and atop the photograph of Houston are the words “WHITNEY HOUSTON” written in a straight-forward and conservative typeface. The cover art suggests a maturity far beyond her 22 years. However, songs on her LP such as “Saving All My Love For You” and “Greatest Love of All” correlate more closely to the image on the album. This is a voice that is front and center, a voice that demands the seriousness of its power.
The one anomaly of this time period is the single “How Will I Know.” The song is both a clear departure that first garnered attention for Houston and a necessary step to gain a newly-powerful audience: fans of MTV. Whereas her earlier cover art was muted in shades of blue, white, and black, “How Will I Know,” is an eager grab for the teen set. “How Will I Know” was released prior to “Greatest Love of All,” a true-to-form Houston ballad. The release of the latter single was a pointed reminder that despite wanting to branch out to other “markets,” what truly set Houston apart was the power to silence thousands with one note.
Whitney Houston is average. I say this not as an insult, but as an observation of her earlier appearance and demeanor. She was not overtly sexual or crass. She existed beyond what it meant (and means) to be a black woman making music. She had an image that was never transient. When I look at old photographs of her now, I am reminded of the black women I see on the streets, the ones who exhibit the sort of vulnerability and curiosity that is typically ignored. Houston was never an “angry black woman.” She was brokenhearted and troubled and hopeful. This much was apparent.
The apartment my family lived in when we first moved to the suburb of Oak Park was small, with low ceilings and a tiny bathroom that could barely fit more than one person at a time. But it was also well lived-in and even now, eighteen years later, I can clearly picture the space. I remember early evenings and my mother fixing dinner on the stove. She listened to Houston’s music. It was never a big deal, but merely what she did after a hard day at work. Whitney was routine and day-to-day. She was always there.
Like a lot of people, I began listening to Whitney’s music again last Saturday evening, focusing on her earlier albums. These, to me, stood out the most. Once “I Will Always Love You” had its moment, it was the music from her earlier LPs that radio stations continued to play. This was the music that I grew up with, the music that ultimately shaped me into the woman I am today. It was the music of my middle class black life.
Fully immersing in early Whitney for a lot of young women like myself began and ended in long car rides. Like the soothing comfort of quiet storm, songs like “Saving All My Love for You” were the soundtrack for the here and there. I can’t recall where we were going, but I can remember the cool breeze blowing in from a cracked window, the light golden glare from street lamps, and the radio as “I’m Your Baby Tonight” played again and again.
For a brief period of time, Houston represented stability. Her music was comfort food. It always sounded nice. If the time was right, if the speakers were loud enough, we would know those songs from beginning to end. The music only settled somewhere skin deep. She was always there for us with little fanfare. But when we pulled her out or when she graced our speakers, we paid attention. This was my informal education. My parents did not need to introduce me. To have a car, to have a long commute, to have parents of a certain age meant her music was constant and normal. This is who we listened to. It’s just what we did. It's just who we were.
Brittany Julious is the senior editor of This Recording. She tumbls here and twitters here. She last wrote in these pages about Party Girl. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.
"Secret Message" - Nu Shooz (mp3)
"Goin' Thru the Motions" - Nu Shooz (mp3)
"You Put Me In A Trance" - Nu Shooz (mp3)