The Bridge: Wesley on Whitney

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S1: Slate Plus members, it’s survey time, which means it’s your chance to tell us what you think about Slate. Slate podcasts and Slate. Plus it’ll only take a few minutes. You can find it at Slate dot com slash survey. Well, there isn’t envy.

S2: Hey, everybody, this is Chris moorlands, host of Hit Parade, Slate’s podcast of Pop Chart History. Welcome to the Bridge. That’s step by step by Whitney Houston. Her cover of an Annie Lennox song taken from the soundtrack to her 1996 film The Preacher’s Wife. Like so many hits in Houston’s career. Step by step. And to bridge her white and black fan bases.

S3: In this case, with a pop soul song by a white singer songwriter recorded for a gospel centered film about a black Baptist church. Step by step, kid number fifteen on the Hot 100. And number 29 on the R&B chart in 1997. And these mini episodes bridge are full length monthly episodes.

S4: Give us a chance to catch up with listeners and enjoy some hit parade trivia this month. I’m delighted to be joined by Wesley Morris, Pulitzer Prize winning critic, New York Times critic at large and a friend and frequent guest on sleep. podcasts. I first encountered Wesley at Grantland where he hosted the podcast. Do you like Prince movies now at the Times? Wesley writes about everything from music to film to cultural criticism. And he co-hosts the still processing podcast with fellow Times writer Jenna Wortham. Always a great lesson. A couple of years ago, an episode Wesley and Jenna did about Whitney Houston helped inspire my own hit parade episode on her work. Wesley Morris, welcome to the bridge.

S5: Thanks for having me. This is a real pleasure as a listener. I you know, I’ve learned so much from you. And the idea that Jenna and I did something that made you want to do something on this show is just. That’s very cool.

S4: No, it’s true. I and you know, your episode appeared back in the spring of 2017 when I double checked. This was when one of the two Whitney documentaries had come out. So the one by Nick Broomfield. Whitney, Can I Be Me, was out. And that’s what you guys were responding to. And it was right around five years after she died. And the second documentary, which didn’t come out until the summer of 2018, simply titled Whitney, you know, that was still to come. But I just thought what inspired me was you guys were you were not avoiding the controversies or the scandals, but you were focusing on the music and the career. And frankly, you had some wonderful anecdotes in there, one of which I want to ask you about right now. Let’s just put it on the table. When did you grow to appreciate Whitney Houston? And by the way, feel free to bring up silver spoons, if you like.

S5: Oh, I mean, well, that was the first time I’d ever seen her. I think that was the first time I I was at school when Merv Griffin was on in the afternoon. So I missed her singing home. Right. There’s a moment where the father on the show, his best friend, has a new girlfriend and the new girlfriend happens to be Whitney Houston. And so at the end of the episode, they all go or I don’t know if everybody goes, but somebody goes to the club. It’s obviously the boyfriend is there.

S6: And Whitney Houston sings Saving All My Love for You and listening to it now. Or, you know, when we recorded that episode and we were doing the preparation for it, I was really struck. A I was relieved to know my memory of that moment was true because sometimes I have false memories of cultural events. So we all thank God I was right. She looked exactly as I remembered her. But what I couldn’t have appreciated as a what was a 7, 6, 7, 8 was the arrangement of that song is not recorded on the album version.

S5: It is it is sultry here. She’s a Russian doll of sound rate. She’s a slight. What she signifies is so many different things at the exact same moment. If she had put out that version of that song as a song, if she’d sung it that way in the recorded version and not lie, by the way, she sang it live on silver spoons. Wow. I don’t know. It’s just a totally I mean, she’s a need a baker. She’s not Whitney Houston. Right.

S4: Which begs the question about crossover and what it means. Because in essence, my focus in this episode and why I was you know, I waited three years after your episode to do my own because I really had to think hard about this. But my focus was pinpointing when Houston crossed over and what that meant for both white and black listeners. I mean, and I was trying to gives a context about what was expected not only of big crossover stars like a Michael Jackson, a prince, a Lionel Richie. But what was also getting played on black radio during the 80s. Do you have a sense of what this meant, what crossover meant in the 80s and 90s? And where are the other crossover figures from that time fit in?

S7: I was a I was a big chart watcher. And I can tell you that I was free.

S8: And I also had I watched MTV and B.E.T. And VH 1. And then in the that the lack of overlap among at least B.E.T. And MTV.

S4: This is a very important point you’re making. Yeah. The lack of overlap, the what the way they were in different worlds.

S7: Please speak on that. They were just in completely different worlds. People who were stars to black people. I mean, you and I were talking before the recording about Bobby Womack, the Bobby Womack of like 1980 six to like 1990 was Freddie Jackson. Right. Mr. Slow down. I mean, there was a lot of crossover, but the question with a crossover and you can probably define this better than I could, but it seemed like a crossover was a person who wasn’t going to stay.

S5: Right. Right. Like a person who was just visiting. And I’m thinking specific, like Freddie Jackson is a good advert. Good, good example of that, Laverne. I think it’s a really good. Yes.

S7: Example of of a crossover like they came once they really come back, but they were all over black radio for years.

S4: I guess this then Segways into the Whitney conversation, because if we assume that much of crossover is just visiting to borrow your term, yet Whitney crosses over and stays. Right. Michael Jackson crosses over and stays. Lionel Richie crosses over and stays. What does that mean in terms of the black audiences relationship to these artists moving forward? And what why does Whitney in particular get that backlash? That’s some of what I was trying to pinpoint.

S7: Well, none of her none of her biggest hits were in the top 10 of Billboard’s hot black singles chart. But Michael J. Michael Jackson was near the top. The Year End version, you mean? Mm hmm. But where do broken hearts go?

S9: I mean, look, there is nothing black radio about that single except the power and blackness of the boys singing. But it did get radio play because Whitney Houston was singing it, but it didn’t fit with anything else on black radio.

S5: And I was looking at that chart for what was at eighty eight. And where do Broken Hearts Go? Is the is the lamest sounding song on the chart. I mean there’s something about in the Whitney episode that you did, you explain there’s a number of things that are just great turns of phrases like the leaving no audience behind for how well I know. I love that.

S8: And then the idea that Vic that I want to dance with somebody is a quintessential it is a quintessential 80s sounding thing. Right. The video is a perfect 80s video. She has she is sort of essentially whiteand herself. I mean, it’s as white as she was ever going to like be presenting herself like as a as a like skinny dippy blonde rate or blonde ish right down to the. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And I I think the Whitney album was just you know, there was no fing gospel about that album.

S4: But then that was a distinction I wanted to make between Whitney, the 87 album and Whitney Houston, the 85 album, which is more of a gradual transition and they’re still sending singles literally thinking about you there. You know, in leading with you give good love, they’re still sending breadcrumbs for black of a better term to the black audience saying, no, no, this is for everybody. And they’re not, you know, going for the jugular on pop crossover right away. But once they do on the second album, it’s kind of off to the races. And that’s the distinction. I wanted him. Yeah. It’s like when did that happen? When did it reach some form of exit velocity where suddenly I find greatest love of all, for example, which is actually the last single released on Whitney Houston.

S10: The five album goes to number one middle of 86. I find that so fascinating because here’s a record that was written for Muhammad Ali by Hope that was originally sung by George Benson. That is better love now by a white audience and a black audience, because it’s as if the black audience suddenly got the memo. Oh, wait a minute. Maybe this is not for us.

S7: And that that that was what I was trying to get at. Yeah. I also think that black people had to sing that song a lot more than any other race of people. I’m just going to say it.

S11: It was a it was a school graduation song. It was a school assembly song. It was an theming in ways that like I if I never hear that song again, I’ll be. That was true for true that.

S5: And one moment in time, I don’t know if you were subjected to singing one moment in time in in school. But CASAA was we had to sing that a lot. And I think that, you know, the arrangements of those songs is setting aside. How Whitney had to figure out how to sing them for herself are very appealing. Along songs. In some ways, because they’re not arranged in a black vernacular at all. They’re generic. And the thing that sort of makes them special is only Whitney Houston singing them. There’s nothing musically interesting about any of those songs.

S4: Speaking of singing, you and Jenna did a great job in the episode analyzing Whitney’s vocal gifts. You even call her the best singer ever. I know. I think about that all the time. Now, did this was this a double edged sword? Did this have a downside in terms of relatability? You seem to be implying that. Did it set a bar for her career that proved hard for anybody to live up to, including her?

S5: This is a great question because I think the thing that makes her the greatest singer of all time in the in the in the in the rock and roll era, anyway, she could sing. She’s a little bit like Nat King Cole. She could sing the blandest his shit and make it sound really beautiful and and not just beautiful in a generic way. And this is the thing that really drives me nuts about this, about like how black is Whitney. And I know as a person who has been you know, I was raised having my blackness questioned by black people. And there’s something about this question of authenticity and how it has to chorus. It has to sort of operate in a particular way. Right. Like, it’s true that with it’s it’s crazy that that where do broken hearts go with the song that was nominated in that category? Because it like we if we as we’ve discussed, it is pretty generic, but it’s a testament to her vocal ability and her and her arrangement of that song that it also just say, I love trying to sing that song like again, getting to the bridge and that stutter. She has two broken hearts.

S9: I just I’m sorry, you guys, but there’s that break that she has toward the end. I mean, she was just really having fun with these these boring at songs. And that’s what kind of made her exciting.

S5: But every once in a while, you get a song like Thinking About You.

S6: Which is my favorite song when that first album. It is. It is. It’s it’s the funkiest song, the record. And it’s very it’s the one really. It’s. Yeah. And she’s singing the R&B of the moment. Right. Share her register as down where everybody else’s register is. She can pick it up a little bit. It’s got a yearning in it.

S2: It’s got some there’s some grit and some sexy.

S5: She wasn’t always doing that kind of singing on. I mean, it’s so emotional that second versus so emotional.

S3: I got to watch her walk in the room, baby. I got to watch the knockout.

S12: And Neerja, like a knew that she does mean things like that.

S3: She’ll throw in a little bit. She’ll she’ll put she’ll put a little stank on a song just so you know that she can do it right.

S7: And why people? I don’t know what why people her when they hurt her. But as a black person, I’m like, well, she is clearly communicating does. She is clearly trying to tell us she is still in the room. Right. And I don’t know, I just feel like we were real.

S5: I mean, I think every black person was hard on Whitney now is like, yeah, I think we might have been a little hard on our girl Whitney. But I think that part of that was just that she was so enormously successful. And popular with white people, I mean, with everybody. And it didn’t matter how much signifying she did in the songs. The fact of the matter is, and as you point this out, like people were just. They just they don’t they didn’t know why a person who was selling that well was. Why? Why take up space in black world when you know an African-America when you own the rest of the country right now? Right.

S4: So when Houston is finally in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I’ve I’ve watched enough artists go through a process of rehabilitation, you know, in the critical mind. It happened to Donna Summer when she was finally inducted a few years back, by the way.

S5: God bless you. One of my favorite episodes of podcasting ever done was when you’re talking somewhere.

S13: That that means a lot to me. I. Donna is very personal for me. I grew up with her. I’m a I’m a Brooklyn boy. And, you know, Italian on my mom’s side. We Italians have this weird ownership of Donna like that. It’s personal. But anyway.

S4: So even after all the drama, you know, is she finally respected and she’s got this higher love cover that’s all over the radio.

S13: I heard it in the drugstore just the other day. And by the way, you made a hilarious point in your episode with Jenna that on a Rolling Stone list of the greatest singers of all time, she was one spot below. Wait for it. Steve Winwood, whom she’s now going to hit, covering on the radio. Right. Yeah. I mean, oh, my God, Chris, that list. I know that list. Yeah, that was probably one. And she was still alive, by the way. I was 20. All compile that laugh around.

S7: She could see that list. Yeah. Oh. Now just kills me anyway. Well, you know, I’ve been thinking a lot about this. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame argument. And I’m shocked that it’s an argument like me too. What are we arguing like? How how strict are you going to draw these lines? Right. Like in my understanding of the way this always worked and you can correct me as I’m speaking out of turn as a voter yourself, but I always associated the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame parameters is just being in the rock era. Right. I agree. Like on what grounds do you discount? We did used it if Madonna’s in there too.

S13: Well, and more to the point. If Aretha zijn and Aretha was like a first ballot entry. Right. Nobody question Aretha. How are you even wondering why Whitney Houston’s in the hall? How is that even a question? I don’t understand that. You know, I never mind the people who should be in the hall like Roberta Flack and Dionne Warwick. Hello, her cousin. I mean, who are not who have never even been on Roberta Flack. That’s that that’s just that is. I know. Right. And feel free to talk about the higher level cover means anything to you.

S5: It doesn’t. You know, it doesn’t. And I heard that I’m a really big I do not enjoy posthumous music. I mean, I. It’s okay. She recorded it. It was gonna be released in Japan. Yeah. I mean, fine. It’s I actually thought when I heard it like Whitney, did you not think we were going to find out about this? We were find out someday. But I’ve a really good friend, Bill Addison, who is who is among the great Whitney Houston aficionados. There are several in my life, a stunningly high number more than any other artist. And.

S6: I think he really sort of gave me an appreciation for for not the cargo version, but he found the original single.

S12: Ah, you know, the B-side and there is just some singing at the end of that record that just correct me. I mean, it’s just the sort of thing where, like you hear her doing it and you just laugh because nobody has more fun. And this is the other other thing about Whitney Houston. Now, I know that we’re we’re we’re talking about the chart, but the great the greatest singing Whitney Houston ever did was lost all of her lives. And I mean, to go to a Whitney Houston concert and hear her rearrange these songs, see her spend eight minutes on one gospel number. Chefs were powerful and just the way she would get all up in a song. Man, what a genius. That’s her legacy. Just genius.

S4: And now comes the time in every hit parade. The bridge episode where we do some trivia. And joining me on the line from Jersey City, New Jersey is Mike. Mike, are you there?

S14: I am, Chris. Hey, how are you? I’m good. I’m doing well.

S4: Now, my understanding is you and I have actually met before because you came to my events in September at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Right.

S15: That’s right. Yeah. So you were there talking about your Woodstock episode as a tie in with the anniversary of Woodstock. And I believe your your parents were there. And I was also there with my mom, who’s also found the show and actually gave me this slate, plus GYPTIAN.

S13: Oh, see, that’s fantastic. So we have we have mom to thank for the reason that you are even able to be our trivia contestant this month.

S15: We do.

S4: Well, that’s as good a time as any for me to remind everybody that while this bridge episode is available to all hit parade subscribers, we only open our trivia rounds to Slate Plus members. So if you are a member and would like to be a trivia contestant, visit slate dot com slash hit parade sign up. That’s Slate.com. Slash hit parade. Sign up. Also, Mike, I should tell you that joining us on the line for this episode of The Bridge is Wesley Morris from The New York Times. Wesley, say hi. Hey, Mike, how are you?

S15: Hey, I’m good, thanks.

S16: Fantastic. So you know how this works, Mike, but just to remind everybody, I’m going to ask you three trivia questions. The first will be a callback to our most recent episode of Hit Parade. And the next two will be a preview of our forthcoming episode of Hit Parade. Are you ready for some trivia? I’m ready. Excellent. Here we go. Question one. Last month, I ran down Whitney Houston’s stunning chart records, including the first woman to debut at number one on the album chart with her Whitney album before the charts were computerized with the SoundScan system. Only six albums total debuted on top before SoundScan. Which of these was not one of them? A Stevie Wonder songs in the Key of Life. B Prince. Purple Rain. C, Bruce Springsteen Live. Or D, Michael Jackson bad.

S17: So I do not remember you mentioning the Purple Rain so long ago. Go to Prince Purple Rain.

S18: That is absolutely correct, though. It was a blockbuster. Purple Rain took four weeks to reach the top of the album charts, whereas the Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen and Michael Jackson LP is all opened on top.

S14: Excellent, Mike. That’s one down. You’ve got to to go. Are you ready for our preview trivia? I’m ready. All right. Here we go.

S16: Question to all four of these artists performed live on the 1999 Grammy Awards. However, who among them went into the night having never scored a Top 40 pop album or single and came away a superstar with no ones on both charts? Within three months, A, Britney Spears, B, Shanaya Tween. C, Alanis Morissette. Or D, Ricky Martin.

S17: Oh, man.

S4: Chris Saari, what year is this? Nineteen ninety nine, ninety nine.

S17: OK, nineteen ninety nine, OK. A couple of artists you mentioned were already successful at that point, but I feel like ninety nine might have been the big year for Ricky Martin. So I’m going to go at the Ricky Martin and that would be correct.

S18: The correct answer is D Ricky Martin s all three women were already platinum sellers and or chart toppers. On Grammy night 1999, Ricky Martin, a Latin pop star, delivered an electrifying version of the Cup of Life a.k.a. Lucky. But they then either by man he had America’s top album and song spectacular. You’re doing very well, Mike.

S14: Are you ready for Question 3? I’m ready. Here we go.

S16: Question 3 During the Latin pop boom on the charts at the turn of the millennium, all four of these acts scored no ones on the hot 100, but three did so in 1999, while one had to wait several years longer. Who did not score a number one pop hit until the 2000s? A Shakira. B Enrique Iglesias. C Jennifer Lopez. Or D Carlos Santana.

S17: All right. So the one that I remember a little further along, possibly. Would it be? Is it a secure.

S18: You have done it. That is correct. Shakira did not issue her first english-language album until 2001, and her first number one pop hit came in 2006 with Hips Don’t Lie like Ricky Martin. All three of the others. Iglesias, Lopez and Santana topped the Hot 100 in 1999.

S14: Superb. You’ve run the table on the trivia. Well done, Mike. Nice job. That’s great. Good job. Thank you very much. Thanks. So I understand you have a trivia question for me, is that right? I do, yes. All right. Ready?

S15: I’m ready, as I’ll ever be in the years 2000 to 2010. There were no Spanish language, no ones on the Billboard Hot 100. But a few songs in Spanish did hit the top 40, which artists had the most Billboard Top 40 hits in Spanish in the 2000s.

S19: Who is it?

S15: A Pitbull. B, Daddy, Yankee. C, Shakira or D, Ricky Martin?

S20: This is a great question because all four of those artists had numerous hits in the top 40 during the 2000s. But the question is specifically who had them in Spanish and. The only top 40 hit I remember Shakira having in Spanish is actually my favorite single by her, the one she did with Alejandro Sanz, not torture tuna. I love that record, but I don’t think she had very many other Spanish language ones. So I’m going to eliminate her. And this is also the period where Pitbull is kind of a reggaeton star, but he’s still singing in English a lot. So I think it’s either Pitbull or Daddy Yankee. And I’m going to go ahead and say, Daddy, Yankee.

S21: That is correct. Answer is B. Daddy, I. Yes, he had four hits in the Billboard Top 40 by the year 2010, including 2004 is Gasolina and 2007’s collaboration with Fergie PacBell Shoe.

S11: I’m glad I puzzle that one out. Wesley, did you have any idea? Because, man, I was just using deductive logic. I would have guessed Daddy Yankee just because I didn’t never. I mean, I don’t know if I can count the number of times I’ve heard Pitbull do his thing and in Spanish. I mean, I have. But not in a big right. In a big way.

S13: Certainly not an all Spanish. Ray, Ray, Ray. Well, it was a good round for all of us, Mike. You got all of your questions, right? I got my question right. So I just want to say thanks so much for being a hit parade listener and joining us on the bridge. Thanks so much for having me.

S3: So as you could hear from those last two trivia questions for our next episode of Hit Parade will be about Latin pop crossover on the American charts. You know, this year’s J-Lo and Shakira halftime show at the Super Bowl reminded us all of the power of Latin crossover. It was a big moment for Spanish language artists, Latin pop. However, the Latin boom of 20 years ago, the one that made Ricky Martin famous, was kind of a half-step the moment when J-Lo and Shakira became famous as well, because all of those hits were in English by the late 10’s Spanish language pop hits were starting to crossover on their own terms and not necessarily by adding English versus although of course that helped. And we will talk about how Spanish language music has crossed over on the charts over multiple decades. Right up to the present day. So look out for that in our next episode of Hit Parade.

S4: My thanks to Wesley Morris for joining me for this episode of The Bridge. Wesley, the best place for folks to read or listen to is at The New York Times. Right. And are there other places folks should check you out?

S5: Well, Jenna Wortham and I are going to do a live still processing show at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, a.k.a. Bam in a month on April 9th. We’re going to probably beats. We’re gonna be talking about things not unrelated to this show. We’re not we’re not going to spend a lot of time with Whitney Houston or we’re going to mention like one aspect of her, but we’re going to spend a lot of time talking about the bodacious awesomeness of black women from like 1982 to about 19, a 95 or 96. And connect that era are those eras to Liza and and the Stallion and Cardi B today.

S13: That sounds amazing. I look forward to that. Thanks again, Wesley.

S22: This episode of Hit Parade. The bridge was produced by Usher Solution. And I’m Chris Mowlam. Keep on marching on that one.