There are no second acts in American lives.
F. Scott Fitzgerald
It struck me as simultaneously ironic and poetic when, a few weeks ago, two of music biggest icons — each of whom in their own way represented the intoxicating excess that goes with a certain level of celebrity — went through transitions that were as similar as they were different. And within days of each other.
One, at least, no longer has to please his public — or seek its forgiveness. The other now faces the task of disproving the famous F. Scott Fitzgerald quote above.
On September 3, Michael Jackson was finally laid to rest, 90 days after his death. At the time of his death, he was beginning rehearsals for a string of comeback concerts in London. He may have hoped would revive a career that was almost totally overshadowed by scandal and financial trouble, but he also expressed doubts about whether he was up to 50 shows — which he said were added to the booking without his prior knowledge. But he may have also been wondering if he would face what another artist is now facing.
On September 1, two days before Jackson’s burial, Whitney Houston attempted to revive her career with a Central Park Concert aired on “Good Morning America,” to support her comeback offering, “I Look To You.” As with Jackson, Houston’s career was derailed by addiction, financial trouble, and a private life that became tabloid fodder and too much for a turned-off public.
The two, Jackson and Houston, are easily two of the biggest stars produced by the American music scene in the last two decades (though Houston’s 150+ total album sales pales next to estimated 350 to 750 million worldwide, she’s the fourth best-selling female artist in the U.S.) and represent a level of celebrity reached by very, very few. Both were credited with breaking down he supposed color barrier on MTV — becoming two of the first black artists whose videos were in heavy rotation on the network. They are also among those artists who, having risen to dizzying heights, have perhaps fallen the farthest. But now, only one of them faces an uphill climb.
After Jackson’s death, the scandals that plagued his last couple of decades seemed to fade against his undeniable accomplishments as a performer and a recording artist. Death, it was said, made Jackson bigger than ever, and perhaps would even go further towards paying his debts than his comeback would.
“Now that he is safely dead,” the line goes, “let us praise him.” Or, as Harvey Fierstein quipped in Torch Song Trilogy,”It’s easier to love someone who’s dead. They make so few mistakes.” As his scandals fade further into the shadows of his legacy, Jackson’s fans can revel in his performances and recordings from his peak period, when he was at the height of his abilities, without either being disappointed by a comeback or having to face that — like all human beings — their idol has changed, and now appears all to human.
There was a time when I wondered if I’d see the same headlines about Houston that I’d seen about Jackson. If there were two bigger stars during my childhood and adolescence, I don’t know who they were. Jackson and Houston were among the biggest, and as a African-American child, were even bigger to me. (Raise your hands if you remember a time when almost every black girl who could carry a tune and stand up in front of a microphone belted out “The Greatest Love of All” at least once, and a good many boys attempted to mimic or master Jackson’s moves? How many talent show audiences were treated to renditions of “The Greatest Love of All” and “Thriller”-inspired dance numbers?) They were the prince and princess of pop.
Houston, with a comeback in full swing now, faces the uphill climb of reconnecting with an audience who wants the “old Whitney” of “The Bodyguard,” some 17-years ago.
Like a lot of people, I grew up with Whitney’s music, and several of her songs evoke important memories. She’s one of those artists privileged to have their music become a part of people’s lives in a lasting way. That blessing is also one of the biggest hurdles Houston faces in her comeback. The “old Whitney,” or at least her music, was so much a part of so many people’s lives that it’s that Whitney they want back — the Whitney of “The Bodyguard,” some seventeen years ago.
But few people who are exactly what they were or can do exactly what they did over twenty years ago, exactly the way they did it then — even people who haven’t been down the destructive path that even Houston acknowledges she traveled for too many years. It took her far away from music, and perhaps far away from the hearts of some fans.
“I Look To You” is Houston’s attempt to find her way back. And it’s a pretty solid sign that she’ll find her way back, though she may run into a few roadblocks along the way.
Coming from any other artist, perhaps, “I Look To You” would be recognized for the solid set of mid-tempo pop/R&B that it is, with enough variety — ranging from straight forward pop, to soulful R&B, to the standard ballads and dancefloor anthems people have come to expect of Houston. A few of them — “Million Dollar Bill,” “Nothin’ But Love,” “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength,” and the title track — linger, and you may find yourself humming them unexpectedly. I did, at least.
No, “The Voice” isn’t what it used to be. Nothing is after 20 years of use, let alone abuse. Time and technique will do a number even if there’s no other trouble to contend with. Artists age, just like actors and athletes, etc., and the voice is the product of a physical instrument that over time will no longer do what it used to. Opera singers often retire at some point when it becomes clear that the body can no longer deliver the voice as it used to.
Pop singers, if they’re lucky, adapt to their new voices and find material that serve them well. They’ll have to work at finding new ways to use their voices, and they’ll have to approach their material more thoughtfully.
I can’t help but think of Billy Holiday, in that sense. I first started listening to her in my teens, starting with her early 40′s work. I liked her coronet-like voice of that period, and I “got” the style of singing she was known for. I even began imitating it, and emulated it to the point that now it’s hard for me to sing a song “straight,” with no improvisation. (Parker, with typical six-year-old rigidity will often say “Daddy, that’s not how it goes,” when I improvise a bit with the songs I sing to him at bedtime.) But I wasn’t blown away, like so many people were.
Then I moved on to her late 40s material, and by the time I got to the Billy Holiday of 1950 on, I was blown away. Certainly, her voice had changed, largely due to drugs, drink, and hard living. Her already narrow range had grown even smaller, and her voice deepened and grew raspy. But her style of singing was still there, and now it was enhanced by her experience. No, she no longer had that clear, hornlike quality. (She went from coronet to tenor sax.) But, to me, she brought something more than a voice and a style to the songs she sang. That was when the whole package came together for me.
I discovered, eventually, that while I was a Billy Holiday fan in general (I appreciated her earlier period) I was a bigger fan of Billy Holiday’s later period. I think Houston could go in the same direction. Whether her fans go with her remains to be seen, though it’s likely that many will. Of th rest, some will discover that they are Whitney Houston fans in general, but bigger fans of Houston’s earlier period. Others will discover that they weren’t so much Whitney Houston fans as they were (or re now) fans of Houston’s early period. But then so much of musical tastes, likes and dislikes, is subjective.
Some of the songs on “I Look To You,” indeed serve Houston well, as she proves she can still sell a song and embrace a lyric believably. At the same time, Houston is clearly operating within the bounds of her new voice. Pushing it a bit here and there, but mostly staying closer to the ground than she used to. The effect is that listeners at once hear in their mind where the “old Whitney” would have taken a note or a phrase. (The sound of the collection, and the new limitations on Houston’s voice that it makes obvious suggest that there no “studio magic” enhanced her efforts in the recording studio.) But those who listen closely, and with open minds, will hear a more grounded singer — who sounds more like a woman than she does girlish — whose not only “lived in” her voice, but has lived things that she only sung about before.
And she still comes up singing. That she has a voice left, and doesn’t sound like Marianne Faithful, is a minor miracle in and of itself. (Though Houston would be fortunate if her new voice won her a new audience, as happened with Faithful.) But what Houston’s new voice lacks in range is still has in power, and makes up for in color and depth that it didn’t have before. It’s no longer “perfect,” as it was described, but it’s no less powerful or listenable. In fact, if anything, it’s more interesting.
(And, no, it shouldn’t be dismissed because of vocal problems on GMA. Even at her vocal peak, Whitney had her off days and got winded. Even then she needed to be well-rested in order to produce.)
There may be people who will only accept the “old Whitney” or some approximation thereof. They will probably come away disappointed. There may be people who aren’t willing or able to forgive Houston for no longer having that “perfect” voice or not being perfect herself. They will come away disappointed, too.
Admittedly, I’m biased towards rooting for most comeback attempts. As a recovering alcoholic/addict, and someone living with ADD, I tend to root for people getting up from a fall. I’ve messed up enough times to know what it means to get another chance.
Listening to Houston’s newest through that filter reminded me of one of the Twelve Steps; number nine, the one that comes after making a list of “all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.” Number nine is one of the hardest, to me, because it means actually making amends: facing, in some way or another, the people you’ve harmed, hurt, or just disappointed. It means owning up to what you did, without expecting or asking for forgiveness, and even accepting that you won’t get it.
It’s not exactly the same, but Houston’s latest musical efforts seems to me kind of like an attempt at “making amends” musically, to the millions of fans who were disappointed by her choices and actions over the years. But not all amends are accepted, and some fans aren’t willing to accept less than “the old Whitney.” The LA Times wrote (and Oprah quoted them in her interview with Houston):
The pain and, frankly, disgust that so many pop fans felt during Houston’s decline was caused not so much by her personal distress as by her seemingly careless treatment of the national treasure that happened to reside within her.
For every review stating, as the LA Times did, that the album is “an effective set” there are reviews from music fans on iTunes and sites like Amazon declaring, “OH well, at least I can go back to my Bodyguard CD, and listen to ‘I will always love you’ —sad, sad, sad, that THAT voice is gone— every song on this CD is a pale shadow of Whitney’s previous greatness.” Or “If you were expecting the Whitney of old then sorry, you won’t find something even remotely close in this album. Better to buy one of her old albums and reminisce… ”
Like I said, you can try to make amends, but it isn’t always accepted and forgiveness isn’t always forthcoming. Sometimes, the only thing you can do to get it is the one thing can’t do: somehow turn back time and undo the damage that’s occurred. Chances are, if you try, you’ll at least be able to clean things up somewhat, find many or even most of the pieces of the past, and fit them together again. But there will always be things you can’t make whole again.
Sometimes we just won’t get the chance, for different reasons.
Jackson’s London concerts, had he lived to perform in them, might have been successful, both commercially and artistically — well-attended and critically acclaimed. They might have even led to new recording that would place Jackson on the charts again while he was still alive to read the reviews. But it’s just as likely that fans and critics would have come to the conclusion that a 50-ish Jackson just wasn’t what he used to be in his 20′s, when he produced “Thriller.” Neither his dance moves nor his voice would have been what they were when he was half as old, and thus neither would be enough to make up for his personal problems and his fall from the top of the pop charts.
Jackson wouldn’t have been able to turn back time any more than anyone else. Perhaps, for the sake of his legacy, it’s better that he didn’t get the chance to try.
I think that’s one way of reading Fitzgerald’s quote on second acts in American life. If there aren’t any, it’s not because of a lack of people attempting second acts. It’s that many people just aren’t interested in them. If you have a spectacular first act, it’d better never end, and you’d certainly better not end it yourself, through unfortunately choices and being and all too human in the end. (And if you’re first act never quite got started, or was lat in starting, don’t expect much applause for the second) Some people won’t cheer you for getting up, because they never forgave you for falling in the first place.
Sometimes we leave a lot of wreckage, in the course of discovering the problem and getting the help that we need. At the height of my drinking, I’m sure there are people I hurt or disappointed in some way during that time who’d want nothing to do with me now, no matter what I’ve done since then. And there are people who worked with me before my ADD was treated, who were worse for it, and who’d never want to work with me again — no matter what I’ve done since then.
In most of those cases, the only way to change that is to undo what was done. And, of course, I can’t. It means that relationships are lost and, in a town like D.C., for me it means most likely some opportunities are lost. Either based on history, or reticence about taking a chance.
Because, let’s face it, I may have gotten better, but I haven’t become “perfect” in interim. And sometimes that, or something very close to it, it what people demand.
As Houston herself knows, what’s done can’t be undone. (Or, as one blogger put it, “you can’t go back and unsmoke a pipe.”) “I Turn To You,” is a promising sign that there is still much Houston can do musically, and that she’s moving on in that direction. I only hope that, when she returns to the studio, more effort is made to find material both musically suited to Houston’s new voice, and lyrically suited to her experience.
I’d suggest at least one cover song for the next CD: “Everything Must Change.”