Whitney Houston and the Persistent Perils of the Mainstream

Two films about the late music icon shine a light on the risks of expecting black artists to embody a palatable pop persona.

Whitney Houston performing at the World Music Awards in 2004
Whitney Houston performing at the World Music Awards in 2004 (Ethan Miller / Reuters)

In less than a year, moviegoers have been presented with two different Whitney Houston films: Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal’s Whitney: Can I Be Me last fall, and Kevin Macdonald’s Whitney this month. Arriving five years after the music icon’s death in 2012, the former looks at her career and personal life, specifically examining Houston’s anxieties around her own race and sexuality. It was, notably, made without the blessing of Houston’s estate (Broomfield said in an interview that the estate was “aggressive and sent emails to people telling them not to take part”). Whitney, meanwhile, was completed with the cooperation of her family and other important figures in her life. It has similar ambitions as Can I Be Me, also attempting to untangle Houston the person from Houston the persona—sometimes, as critics have pointed out, at the expense of celebrating her musical genius.

This revisiting of Houston’s legacy comes at a time when the artist’s presence still resonates throughout pop culture. Earlier this year, the gay coming-of-age movie Love, Simon featured Houston’s music in a moving dance sequence. On a more painful note, Kanye West attracted criticism in May for his decision to use a photo of Houston’s bathroom—filthy with signs of apparent drug use—on the cover of a new Pusha T album he had produced. The recent documentaries shed new light on many of the particulars of Houston’s life and death: her upbringing in the church, her turbulent marriage to Bobby Brown, her shortcomings as a parent. But at a moment when musicians, generally, have greater control than before over the production and distribution of their work, the films also consider the immense pressures Houston navigated in order to appeal to a white mainstream—pressures still faced today by black and queer artists seen as crossover pop acts.

When Houston died from a drug-related accidental drowning in a Beverly Hills hotel room at age 48, fans were stunned. Gone suddenly was the superstar beloved around the world as the Queen of Pop and The Voice. By the time Houston released her third album, 1990’s I’m Your Baby Tonight, she’d already churned out a string of hits, including 1987’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me).” In terms of memorability, the song is second perhaps only to Houston’s 1992 cover of “I Will Always Love You,” whose free-floating, melismatic I’s and yous kept it hovering at No. 1 for 14 weeks—a record at the time.

Houston’s success helped pave the way for the rise of other black female artists like Anita Baker and Janet Jackson at the height of the MTV era. “Because of what Whitney and Sade did, there was an opening for me,” Baker told the Los Angeles Times in 1987. “For radio stations, black woman singers aren’t taboo anymore.” Houston continued to chip away at cultural barriers. In 1991, she performed “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Super Bowl, one of the most-watched television programs in the country. Her rendition came at a tenuous political moment: The “tough on crime” policies of the ’80s were tormenting black communities across the United States, and the country had just entered into the Gulf War. That it was a black woman—from the race riot–roiled city of Newark, New Jersey, no less—who sang the national anthem was no small thing. In fact, her performance was arguably the symbol of strength and unity the country was looking for at the time: “Hearing her sing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ she made people proud that they were Americans,” Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds recalls in Whitney.

But as the documentaries underscore, record moguls groomed Houston for public consumption to devastating effect. In Can I Be Me, Kenneth Reynolds, a former executive at Houston’s label, Arista Records, says, “The company had this image in mind that they were going to create a pop icon—an artist that was accepted by the masses.” He goes on: “Her music was deliberately pop. Anything that was too black-sounding was sent back to the studio.” Or as Pattie Howard, Houston’s bass singer, puts it: “That’s who white America was presented. They weren’t presented [with] Newark, New Jersey, Whitney.” Likewise, the music-business legend Clive Davis, who in 1983 signed a 19-year-old Houston to Arista, once reportedly protested that she looked “too ethnic” on her debut-album cover.

While Arista’s efforts to make Houston less “black-sounding” were commercially successful, they took a psychological and professional toll on the singer. During an infamous moment at the 1989 Soul Train Music Awards, some members of the audience booed her, allegedly because she and her pop sound were too polite—too white. Hurt, she later insisted on a reversal of sorts, and was adamant that her next album skew toward R&B. In both films, Houston’s friends and colleagues proffer that they don’t think that she ever fully recovered from that humiliating denunciation.

In addition to the difficulties she faced for being black, Houston was stalked by the rumor that she was in love with her longtime best friend, Robyn Crawford, who later became her executive assistant. But the pieties of the ’80s—a decade of ambient and state-sanctioned homophobia—meant many Americans looked askance at even the suggestion of queerness. In early interviews, Houston was often asked about, and just as often rejected, speculation that she was anything other than straight. Still, reported fighting between Crawford and the rest of Houston’s inner circle for the singer’s attention, along with the pressure on Houston to project a wholesome image, eventually led to Crawford’s resignation. In Whitney, Houston’s older half-brother, Gary Garland-Houston, says of Crawford: “She was a nobody … I knew she was something that I didn’t want my sister to be involved with.”

It can be easy, in some ways, to see Houston’s professional troubles as a relic of another time. After all, Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar have been lauded recently for putting out bold, distinctly black music, with the latter winning a Pulitzer Prize earlier this year. And despite an administration with a record of scaling back hard-won LGBTQ rights, openly queer musicians like Sam Smith, Sia, and Janelle Monáe regularly top the charts in the U.S. For many, Houston herself endures as a gay icon, as alluded to in the aforementioned Love, Simon sequence: In it, the titular character glams up his imagined college dorm room with a poster of the chanteuse, nodding to his embrace of his own sexuality.

But black female musicians who’ve come up after Houston have inherited some of the problems she struggled with in the late ’80s and early ’90s. After rocketing to fame in the mid- and late-’90s, Lauryn Hill surprised listeners by disappearing from the public eye for years. In 2006, Hill said to Essence magazine: Audiences “need to understand that the Lauryn Hill they were exposed to in the beginning was all that was allowed in that arena at that time.” Hill, like Houston, was squeezed by, in her words, “a small space designed for consumer mass appeal and dictated by very limited standards.”

More recently, in a 2015 New York Times profile, Rihanna discussed industry expectations that there’s a “right” way to be a black person. “When I started to experience the difference—or even have my race be highlighted—it was mostly when I would do business deals,” Rihanna said. She added that she has to be mindful of the fact that people “are judging you because you’re packaged a certain way.” Her observation—that not all kinds of blackness are perceived as desirable—fits with Houston’s experiences of being made to downplay certain expressions of her racial identity to achieve mass success.

Despite the acclaim and fandom she’s secured, Beyoncé has been buffeted by similar expectations. In 2008, the cosmetics company L’Oréal Paris was roundly criticized over allegations that it had digitally lightened the megastar’s skin in an advertisement—a rather literal example of “whitewashing” for the seeming purposes of catering to mainstream tastes. And in April, after Beyoncé’s showstopping Coachella performance, her mother, Tina Knowles-Lawson, wrote on Instagram that, initially, she “was afraid that the predominately white audience at Coachella would be confused by all of the black culture and Black college culture because it was something that they might not get.”

While the Beyoncé of 2018 doesn’t need to pander to white audiences to sell records, she spent years building up the influence she holds in the industry today. Knowles-Lawson, in her post, said that Beyoncé told her: “I have worked very hard to get to the point where I have a true voice,” such that she doesn’t need to do what’s “most popular.” That it took Beyoncé more than a decade, as a solo artist, to procure her “true voice”—that she wasn’t singing “I like my Negro nose with Jackson 5 nostrils” in the early 2000s—comes back to the narrow standards of acceptability that afflicted black artists like Houston.

Those narrow standards, in their own way, also led to public scrutiny over Houston’s rumored sexuality. In 2018, female musicians who are queer can face different challenges. As The Atlantic’s Spencer Kornhaber wrote of the backlash to the Rita Ora track “Girls,” “Music’s most famous depictions of same-sex female romance typically treat it as a dare, a dalliance, a performance—rather than an expression of real desire.” The industry, and the American public, has grown more accepting of LGBTQ musicians since Houston debuted in 1985, but unevenly so. Monáe, who this year came out as queer, has acknowledged her skittishness about discussing her sexuality, among other things. “It had to do with the fear of being judged,” she told Rolling Stone in an April profile of her early-career insecurity. “All I saw was that I was supposed to look a certain way coming into this industry, and I felt like I [didn’t] look like a stereotypical black female artist.”

Though Houston sought to balance her sense of identity with the demands of music executives and audiences, she never tried to fit perfectly into the rigid box of a “stereotypical black female artist.” “And don’t say I don’t have soul or what you consider to be ‘Blackness,’” Houston said in a 1991 Ebony magazine story. “I know what my color is.” It was the sort of guarded, self-aware sentiment she expressed often—a declaration of individuality, a pointed dismissal of the endless judgments she heard from her detractors. Just as the memory of Houston’s excellence—of her singular talent, of the way she could cast a spell—hasn’t faded, neither should attention to the insidious systemic forces that wore her down, and that loom today.