When I worked at Borders, it used to be easy enough to find the pop artists: If they were white, they were in Pop/Rock and if they were African-American, they were in Soul/R&B. Yes, yes, the handful African-American rockers were in Pop/Rock – Jimi Hendrix, Chuck Berry, Little Richard – but very few others; even Sly & the Family Stone, who I’ve always thought of as a rock group rather than a soul group, were kept under Soul/R&B. And that’s the way it was always organized, aside from two major exceptions.
One exception was Michael Jackson. The other was Whitney Houston.
Now both of them, like the store that deemed them Pop/Rock, are gone. Both lived about a half-century, had a career of record-breaking success followed by a long spell in the wilderness, and died suddenly, with rumors of drug abuse.
With Michael Jackson, it was interesting because although nobody wanted to claim him for the 20 years or so before he died, everyone became an instant fan, not unlike how, once the New England Patriots got a decent coach and team, you couldn’t find someone who didn’t claim to have “always loved the Patriots,” even when they were the laughing-stock of Boston sports. Well, let me tell you, I lived in Boston in the 1980s, and nobody liked the Patriots. Not a single person. Let alone scores of them who now crowd the downtown bars and say they “always” had.
Same thing with Michael Jackson. When he died, everyone acted like it was 1985 and nothing had broken his success. This happened because Michael Jackson was one of those few performers – really, the only other ones being Elvis and the Beatles (although we’ll have to wait and see on Madonna, perhaps) – who was so big initially, it somehow all made sense when it snapped back in place with his death. I have a book about the Beatles with a quote that says something like, “Once you go up, you go down. Except for the Beatles. They could never really get down.” The next page then talks about “The Magical Mystery Tour.” Well, same thing with Michael Jackson. When you’re so huge and famous, you can’t ever really get down.
But Whitney Houston is a little more of an anomaly. She was so, so big, but then she totally disappeared in what was (at least to someone who was essentially a non-fan) a haze of drugs, confusion, and Bobby Brown. Unlike Michael Jackson (and, I would imagine, what it was like for periods of Elvis’s career), she wasn’t always just there. I remember looking at her tag in the Pop/Rock section in the early-’00s at Borders and thinking “Huh,” as though it was a relic from a lost era, like say, 1992.
That was the year that Whitney (and she was at that one-name level of fame, like Michael, Madonna, Liz, or, ick, Kim?) was at her peak, when “I Will Always Love You” became the biggest hit ever in the history of recorded humanity and even back before they knew how to write. You could not escape that song. MTV and VH1 had it on all the time. Radios played it instead of commercials. Stores that didn’t even sell music had the single (remember singles?!) in cashier lines. Uncreative popular girls used it at the end of stupid sketches for class or some assignment where you have to use a song to help tell a story, or something. And then of course there was that guy in England who successfully sued a lady for being a public nuisance when she played the song repeatedly at full blast.
Well, after living through the song’s reign (as a 12-year-old adolescent, nonetheless), I felt like we should all be able to issue public nuisance violations because the song was at full blast everywhere. It won all those Grammys. In fact, it single-handedly made me lose all faith in the Grammys (as a 13-year-old adolescent, nonetheless) when The Bodyguard Soundtrack beat out R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People for Best Album.
One good thing that came out of the Bodyguard-era of Whitney Houston’s career is that it made me appreciate how good her earlier music was. That first solo record, which became something like the best-selling solo record since the invention of solo performers and maybe even a few cave-eras before that, had “How Will I Know,” and other ’80s pop gems I had never fully appreciated; music that was at least as good as Madonna’s “Borderline” and Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time,” which is pretty damn good.
But somewhere in the mid-’90s we lose the trail, and Whitney Houston sort of vanishes. She doesn’t make any of those Rolling Stone 500 lists and she is not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She tried to make that comeback record a few years ago, but the only reason I remember is because there was a huge poster of it that I saw every time I went into J&R Records in downtown Manhattan to buy more of those 2009 Beatles remasters. She was something rare in the pop world: A living-legend who was omnipresent, but then turned into a phantom as though she had never been there.
So I’m going to get up and go to work tomorrow and try to dig out all of the Whitney Houston product I can, just like I did for Etta James, just like I did for Amy Winehouse, and just like I did for Michael Jackson, not because I’m an unsentimental capitalist bastard but because I know that everyone is going to come in looking for it and it’s simply easier to reach in front of you to get something than it is to keep walking across the room.
And I know where I’ll find it, too. Barnes & Noble keeps her in the Soul department.
Only Michael Jackson is in Pop/Rock.