Whitney Houston and the Actor-Musician: The Week in Pop-Culture Writing

Highlights from seven days of reading about arts and entertainment

Whitney Houston at the Grammys in 1986 (Lennox McLendon / AP)

Whitney Houston Was Too Perfect to Stay
Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib | MTV News
“The message is that greatness can only be unexpected for so long before it becomes routine and pushes the great to some collapse. With Whitney, the first decade-plus seemed impossible. She was polished and presented in a way that set her firmly on the edge of titanic and fragile. She was a black pop star in the era of Michael, Prince, and Janet. But she was a black pop star who, at first, avoided the societal pitfalls of being black, a woman, famous, and powerful in a country that is often only comfortable with a person being one of those things at a time, and sometimes not even then.”

Lydia Davis and Jhumpa Lahiri Learn New Languages
Charles Halton | The Millions
“Dictionaries can be detrimental crutches for those learning a new language. They are psychological hindrances to fully grasping vocabulary. If you know that a dictionary is only a keystroke away, you’ll likely not spend as much effort driving new words into your head as you would if you had no safety net. Furthermore, discovering words in context gives a deeper understanding than scanning an abstract definition.”

How Anna Nicole Smith Became America’s Punchline
Sarah Marshall | BuzzFeed
“If the heroine’s allure is the product of not just blind luck but sustained effort and intent—let alone strategic surgical alteration and courtship of wealthy benefactors, as Anna Nicole Smith’s was—then she is too powerful to remain sympathetic, and becomes an object of jealousy, rather than aspiration. It’s one thing to be chosen as a goddess; it’s quite another to claw your way to the top of Mount Olympus. And when the public finds out a goddess is in fact a striving mortal, this revelation will push her into a very different kind of myth: one whose satisfying conclusion comes not when a woman is exalted, but when she is destroyed.”

The Promising State of the Actor-Musician
Bridget Minamore | Pitchfork
“Even those actors and musicians who bypass accusations of artistic hubris and achieve success in their second field will still find themselves viewed primarily as one profession or the other. It is rare for the two sides of the creative career coin to be held in equal esteem, particularly at the same time. Instead, successful crossover artists tend to transition between acting and making music, with the peak of one career coinciding with a lull in the other.”

Alec Baldwin, James Baldwin, and Apocalyptic Exceptionalism
Matt Seybold | Los Angeles Review of Books
“The humor in Baldwin’s sketches does not originate from the antics of their central figure, but from his foils, who elicit laughs primarily by reacting to Trump’s un-ironic vulgarity with open exasperation, horror, and disdain. Many previous presidential impersonators found unmistakable joy in playing their characters, but Baldwin makes palpable his revulsion towards the character he inhabits. Portraying Trump is an act of endurance, even penitence, which every fiber of his being resists.”

How Scorsese Made a Film That Went Against Hollywood’s Rules
Stephanie Zacharek | Time
“Scorsese’s insistence on thinking everything through in advance makes a cinematographer’s job easier, though nothing is ever set in stone. It can’t be, because so much of filmmaking is problem solving, particularly when vagaries of weather, or even just shifting light, enter the picture. Besides, all working relationships between directors and their cinematographers are different, and even when a director-cinematographer duo work together on another movie—or on many more movies—the nature of that relationship shifts with the material.”

Anthony Bourdain’s Moveable Feast
Patrick Radden Keefe | The New Yorker
“[Bourdain] once described his body as ‘gristly, tendony,’ as if it were an inferior cut of beef, and a recent devotion to Brazilian jujitsu has left his limbs and his torso laced with ropy muscles. With his Sex Pistols T-shirt and his sensualist credo, there is something of the aging rocker about him. But if you spend any time with Bourdain you realize that he is controlled to the point of neurosis: clean, organized, disciplined, courteous, systematic. He is Apollo in drag as Dionysus.”

The Big Short: Sarah Manguso’s Aphorisms in an Age of Alternative Facts
Rachel Syme | The New Republic
“The aphorism has come back into vogue, or at least into the cultural conversation, because we are currently enmeshed in short-form writing, which is flourishing on Twitter and in the proliferation of political soundbites, both true and false. We are engaged in big cultural battles for truth and where to find it, and we are all searching for verified phrases that we can repeat over and over in order to maintain a sense of sanity as facts shift beneath our feet.”

Culture on Culture
Bryan Washington | The Awl
“Trap music, as an idea, started as one thing — utilizing the sparest assortment of beats on-hand to deliver the gruffest, hardest rhymes at an artist’s disposal — and through the phantasms of the music industry, it’s since become a similar other. The same permutations have occurred with what we’d have originally identified as screw, and dub-step, and dancehall, and other forms that’ve been molded away from their original variables by the market’s demands. But, in this way, the genre becomes akin to other hyper-specific forms (like reggaeton, or k-pop), and the trick becomes retaining the particularity, while capitalizing on the variables that draw so many folks in.”

Is My Novel Offensive?
Katy Waldman | Slate
“It’s not hard to imagine why sensitivity readers could potentially put authors in a difficult position. After all, where would we be if these experts had subjected our occasionally outrageous and irredeemable canon—Moby Dick or Lolita or any other classic, old, anachronistic book—to their scrutiny? Plenty of fiction—Portnoy’s Complaint, or Martin Amis’s Money—is defined in part by a narrator’s fevered misogyny. Novels like Huckleberry Finn derive some of their intrigue and complexity from the imperfections of their social vision.”