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wesley morris

Jenna Wortham!

jenna wortham

Yes.

wesley morris

So there are, like, maybe two things that happen when people stop me on the street, even during this pandemic, to say something about the show. Thing number one that they say is: Where’s Jenna? So, there’s three things. Where’s Jenna? And then, I love the show. Why aren’t you making more of it? When can we get new episodes?

jenna wortham

We are working on it every day, I promise you all.

wesley morris

We really are. They’re coming in March. And the third thing, frequently, is that they love the Whitney Houston episode that we did in 2017.

jenna wortham

Aw, me too.

wesley morris

Yes, I mean it is one of my favorite episodes, too.

jenna wortham

(SINGING) Always, always love you.

wesley morris

Oh, I did not know you had that in you.

jenna wortham

Babe, layers. Multitudes. Dat’s, trust me.

wesley morris

Anyway, you know, her legacy has been so overshadowed by the circumstances of her death. And it was really hard, even at that point in 2017 with these two documentaries coming out about her life, to really think about what her musical legacy was. So, I don’t know, I think I’m proud of that episode, because we actually did a thing that neither of those movies really —

jenna wortham

They weren’t about loving her as much as we love her. They were about dissecting her. You and I wanted to offer a tribute. We wanted a living memorial about how important she is to us. And that’s why it’s one of my favorite episodes.

wesley morris

So, we bring you now, “We Will Always Love You, Whitney Houston” from 2017. Enjoy.

[music]
jenna wortham

I’m Jenna Wortham.

wesley morris

And I’m Wesley Morris. We’re two culture writers at The New York Times.

jenna wortham

I mostly write about how humans relate to technology.

wesley morris

And I mostly write about how movies and popular culture relate to humans.

jenna wortham

Nice. And this is Still Processing.

[music]
wesley morris

So, hello.

jenna wortham

Hello, Mr. Morris.

wesley morris

How are you?

jenna wortham

I’m really good.

wesley morris

I’m just going to immediately ask you, what’s in your brain?

jenna wortham

Oh my God, OK, well, what’s in my pocket is a piece of black tourmaline, which is a grounding stone that’s used for carrying around and warding off negative energy, which was given to me by my reiki healer. And I’ve been carrying it around with me all week. And it is giving me so much life and energy and a good spirit, which is why you see this giant grin on my face. Oh my God, so, over the weekend Nicki Minaj, you know, started up her own version of the PriceWaters Clearinghouse and just starts giving away money to students who basically ask her to pay off their college loans. So, Nicki Minaj is out here. Someone tweeted Nicki Minaj and is like, help me pay off my college loan. And she’s like, prove it to me that you need help, and I will. She gave out, like, $20,000.

wesley morris

What?

jenna wortham

I’m not sure if that’s what Betsy DeVos had in mind when she talks about vouchers for education, but Nicki Minaj is doing her own version of vouchers for education.

wesley morris

Amend.

jenna wortham

And I’ve been thinking about Kate McKinnon on SNL. She roasted Morning Joe over the weekend, and I can’t stop thinking about her strange alien face and the contortions that she’s able to make with it. And I just practice eternal gratitude for her humor.

archived recording (kate mckinnon)

Here’s what I want to say to. I’m going to start with, the President is mentally ill.

archived recording (alex moffat)

Well —

archived recording (kate mckinnon)

He has entered a state of psychosis.

archived recording (alex moffat)

Mika, Mika, you’re being naughty. You’re being very naughty.

archived recording (kate mckinnon)

What, am I being naughty?

archived recording (alex moffat)

Yeah, you’re being real naughty. You’re being real naughty. Maybe you need someone to punish you for being naughty.

archived recording (kate mckinnon)

A bad journalist.

archived recording (alex moffat)

You’re not a bad journalist. You’re a bad kitty.

jenna wortham

And the last thing, Wesley, over the weekend someone by the name of Black Queer was tweeting at me — actually both of us but only I noticed because you never look at your Twitter — incessantly about the legacy of Whitney Houston. And it actually kind of got me on this tangent. Like, I can’t stop thinking about how we think about and remember Whitney Houston. So I spent all weekend in a deep YouTube k-hole thinking about her and watching her videos and interviews. What’s on your list for the week?

wesley morris

Well, Jonathan Demme died almost two weeks ago. He’s just a great director. “Stop Making Sense” is the greatest concert movie, I think, ever made. The Talking Heads at of show, great movie. I saw “Guardians of the Galaxy” over the weekend.

jenna wortham

Of course you did.

wesley morris

It’s so long. Why is it so long? Also, after I saw that movie, I went and got some lunch, and the waiter brought me something. I said, “thank you.” She said, “no worries.” Don’t say “no worries” to “thank you.” That’s the wrong answer. Why would you say that? You’re welcome. Just say you’re welcome. And I also was thinking about Whitney Houston, mostly because you prompted, but then I spent my weekend in a Whitney Houston tunnel. I listened to a lot of records. I think we got to really think about what it means to: A, not have Whitney Houston anymore and, B, to think about what we have of her that’s meaningful. So, I don’t know. I mean between those two things, I think we might have to talk about Whitney Houston this week.

jenna wortham

We’ve got to talk about Whitney. I mean, if we both have been just really stewing in her memory all weekend, we just got to go in.

wesley morris

It’s been five years since she died, and I think in that time other people have died. Prince has died. David Bowie has died. And I think the way the culture has come together to memorialize them as artists, it’s just different to me than the way we remember Whitney Houston.

jenna wortham

Oh, I’m —

wesley morris

Which is not as an artist.

jenna wortham

Oh, there’s Prince graffiti everywhere in my neighborhood, Bowie graffiti everywhere in my neighborhood. Where is the Whitney graffiti? Where’s Whitney with the hair? And how will I know?

wesley morris

It would be great to just spend the episode first talking about her music, and how important her voice is to the way we think about her. And then I think we should talk about how it went wrong, and how it’s going wrong completely shaped the way we think about her now. Like, her legacy is, in my estimation, and more negative than it is anything else.

jenna wortham

And part of the reason we’re interested in this particular moment right now is that a documentary came out during the Tribeca Film Fest called “Can I Be Me?” that’s supposed to be about her legacy in her life, but really just focuses on all the very — it seems to really focus on all the tabloid-y aspects of her life. Again, it’s like we haven’t figured out how to deal with Whitney’s music without dealing with all the things that were so salacious about her life. The drug use, the Bobbi Brown use, the reality show, the interviews. I mean, all of it. All of it.

wesley morris

Yes, yes.

jenna wortham

It’s not as though these other celebrities that I’ve passed — Prince, Bowie, that didn’t also have sordid details from the past. But in some, for whatever reason, we can’t separate Whitney’s memory from that aspect, the dark parts of it.

wesley morris

Yeah, so, we’re going to make a case for Whitney being the greatest.

jenna wortham

And we’re going to listen to a lot of Whitney, too.

[music]
wesley morris

I want to talk about the first time I saw Whitney Houston. The first time I ever really realized she existed.

jenna wortham

OK.

wesley morris

In the 80s, there was a thing that happened where TV shows would try to bring on, they’d try to do these cross-promotional things, where they’d get people from the movies or the music industry to come on and, like, do a special guest episode or from a different show. So you’d get these cross-pollinated, like here’s the cast of “Facts of Life” —

jenna wortham

Oh yeah, yeah, yeah.

wesley morris

— on “Different Strokes.”

jenna wortham

I remember that.

wesley morris

So. There was a show in the 80s called “Silver Spoons.” It was a Ricky Schroder show, Ricky Schroder goes to live with his very rich estranged father. Estranged father has a best friend, a Black guy, who one day brings over his new girlfriend.

jenna wortham

Stop.

wesley morris

The new girlfriend is Whitney Houston.

jenna wortham

Oh em gee.

wesley morris

So she invites the boyfriend to watch him — watch her perform — at some club somewhere, and she does “Saving All My Love,” which had just become a single. But the version she does on “Silver Spoons,” a, like, disposable NBC show, is better than the version that’s on the album.

jenna wortham

No, it’s not.

wesley morris

Oh, yes it is.

jenna wortham

5 I need to hear a little bit of that.

[music – whitney houston, “saving all my love”]
archived recording (whitney houston)

(SINGING) I’ve got to get ready, just a few minutes more.

jenna wortham

How old do you think she is here?

wesley morris

22?

jenna wortham

Oh my goodness.

wesley morris

21?

archived recording (whitney houston)

(SINGING) When you walk through my door ‘cause tonight —

jenna wortham

So, her mom used to sing backup for all these women? Her godparents, essentially, which included Aretha Franklin, included Dionne Warwick, and Whitney used to come to the clubs with her when she was little.

archived recording (whitney houston)

(SINGING) All night through.

So I’m saving all my love, saving all my love.

jenna wortham

So that’s exactly it. She’s channeling all those women, all those jazz singers.

wesley morris

But listen to this.

archived recording (whitney houston)

(SINGING) For you!

jenna wortham

It’s gorgeous.

wesley morris

I was, like, seven. I have never forgotten that. It has been seared into my brain, and I don’t know why, because she wasn’t — she was nobody. She was nobody. But for some reason, that woman on that show singing like that did a number on me.

jenna wortham

I mean, her being on that show, “Silver Spoons” in that way, is very emblematic of the role that she played in American culture, though. She just represented something that everybody wanted to believe in. She was the beautiful, perfect — she was this kind of daughter of American music royalty, which we’re going to talk about in a moment what that means, because she really does come from a long line of incredible, incredible, female singers, female Black singers. Like, she embodied for, I think, for women and for Black women and for American people, kind of what the Cosbys also did, which was this type of Black American that you could believe in. And she kind of straddled all of these worlds, seemingly effortlessly, although we would find out later that took a lot of pressure. Yeah, and as I’m looking at that clip thinking about her being 22, she’s so thin, and Whitney was —

wesley morris

She was a model.

jenna wortham

But —

wesley morris

Whitney —

jenna wortham

Right, she came up as a model first.

wesley morris

Whitney was a model.

jenna wortham

Yes, and so in reading her biography, one of her many biographies over the weekend, though, I mean, that background really kind of wrecked her. I mean, having people constantly looking at her, telling her, oh, her nose is too broad. Yeah, your skin’s light but like not light enough. I mean, your hair is — like, she was really scrutinized. And so, I want to read you this quote she had said in the past at some point. “In grammar school, some of the girls had problems with me. My face was too light. My hair was too long. It was the Black consciousness period, and I felt really bad. I finally faced the fact it wasn’t a crime not to have friends. Being alone means you have to have fewer friends. When I decided to become a singer, my mother told me I’d be alone a lot. Loneliness comes with life.” So, I guess, it’s interesting to think about the arc of her life, and also remember that even at 22 when she’s becoming capital W, Whitney Houston, capital H Whitney Houston, she still had — you can imagine — a lot of internal insecurity about being good enough, being thin enough, being pretty enough. I mean, I think it’s very telling that we never —

wesley morris

Being Black enough.

jenna wortham

Being Black enough, being white enough, being too white, being too Black. I also think it’s very telling that we never know if we’re seeing her real hair, which to me, is the ultimate indicator of whether or not you feel you’re beautiful. She’s always being forced to cover up what she was born with a wig. We were talking about this last night. Did she ever show us her natural hair?

wesley morris

Never, ever. I remember when the “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” video came out. That was this summer of ‘87, and it was long. It was inexplicable. She was only gone for a year. How’d she get this hair? I mean, it was a mystery. I mean, a lot of Black women knew what was going on, but, like, if you didn’t know it just was like —

jenna wortham

No, but that hair and that body —

wesley morris

It was long, and she was swinging, it moved when she danced.

jenna wortham

Yeah, it was unreal. As a very chubby adolescent with a tight kinky ‘fro, kind of like the one I have today rocking right now, the video was incredible, but also traumatic to watch. It was —

wesley morris

People were losing their minds about, like, what to do about our hair.

[music – whitney houston, “i wanna dance with somebody”]
wesley morris

This is the first single from her album “Whitney,” which came out in 1987. It’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.”

archived recording (whitney houston)

(SINGING) Woo!

wesley morris

That “woo” just kicks the door open for this song, and on this second part of her career, it’s just so happy.

jenna wortham

This is also the most perfect encapsulation of how I want to remember Whitney.

archived recording (whitney houston)

(SINGING) Clock strikes upon the hour, and the sun begins to fade.

jenna wortham

The exuberance in her voice and the tone of it and the tenor of it, it’s just so pure. She’s a portal. I mean, the voice is a portal, because it does transport you. The fact that we’re listening to her sing and we’re able to kind of imagine where she’s at, and what she’s telegraphing, is the doorway into her consciousness.

wesley morris

And the register here —

archived recording (whitney houston)

(SINGING) Oh I wanna dance with somebody. I wanna feel —

wesley morris

The chemical reaction that gets produced in your brain when you hear that note —

jenna wortham

Yeah.

wesley morris

Is almost nobody has that note.

jenna wortham

You can also really tell in the song that she’s from a musical family and that the confidence in her voice, she’s like, oh, I’m going to be as good as Aunty Ree, which is Aretha. I’m going to be as good as Cousin D — Dionne Warwick. You know what I mean? Like, you can just see her really kind of starting to shine in that way.

archived recording (whitney houston)

(SINGING) With somebody who loves me!

wesley morris

So, I want to skip ahead to, like, the end of that song.

archived recording (whitney houston)

(SINGING) Say you wanna dance, don’t you wanna dance?

wesley morris

I mean, you’re on drugs at this point. You are on, you’re hooked on Whitney at this point.

jenna wortham

She was our drug.

wesley morris

And she just kept showing off. This right here, she’s getting with this. She doesn’t have to do that. You kind of take this song for granted because you hear it so much. But when you think about the performance that she’s giving, it’s incredible, because she changed what you expect a singer in a pop song to do.

jenna wortham

Whitney is, like, fully inhabiting her skin, fully inhabiting her voice, understanding her power, and really beginning to embody — like, that’s what I hear when I’m listening to that song. I hear a woman who was like, oh, I got this.

wesley morris

Right, no, gathering strength.

jenna wortham

I can do this.

wesley morris

And so, 1990, Whitney is a huge hit. And she follows it up. We should also credit Narada Michael Walden, who was her producer during that period. He did a lot of songs in the first album, did a lot of songs on “Whitney,” along with Michael Masser. These people produced the songs. Different people wrote the singles or the actual songs themselves. But Whitney was also responsible for doing the vocal arrangements.

jenna wortham

Say more, say more, because I think it’s important to understand how much, what hand she had in shaping her sound.

wesley morris

So, what we’re talking about in some ways is, like, what her legacy is as a singer, and I think one of the reasons it’s easier to memorialize a person like Bowie or Prince was because they were songwriters who had an obvious hand in the creation. And in Prince’s case and in Bowie’s case, too, they played instruments. So, I mean, in Prince’s case he played all the instruments a lot of the times.

jenna wortham

And here, I just going to say this quickly, but this is what happens with women pop singers, too, we never think of their voice as being their instrument.

wesley morris

Right, exactly. So, Whitney is as much an author of these songs, which she didn’t write or produce, because she had to figure out how to expletive sing them. And it wasn’t as though she just got the sheet music or heard the arrangement and was like, oh, I’m just going to follow this. She was like, I’m going to do fills here, I’m going to go up here —

jenna wortham

Yes.

wesley morris

And go down here —

jenna wortham

Tell the people.

wesley morris

I’m going to, like, I’m going to not wait until the end of the song to start doing my runs. I’m going to do my run at the beginning of the song. I’m going to do my run after the chorus. And she could take the basic bones of a song and figure out a way to slide through them, slip around them. She was a really acrobatic singer in a way that didn’t deny a listener pleasure — sort of the pleasures of a traditional pop song, which is the thing Mariah Carey, for instance, only wants to do. She is a person who understands, as an artist and as a craftsperson, how to build a pop song. But at some point she just wanted to sing all over them, and they become less fun for a listener to sing along to, because you can’t sing like Mariah Carey.

jenna wortham

There’s no way you can keep up with Mariah Carey.

wesley morris

But Whitney was really good at following the rules of the song enough to give a listener something pleasurable, but also giving them an added dimension of pleasure that was not reproducible by anybody else’s human voice.

jenna wortham

And I will say I think a big part of that comes from her background. Like, she grew up in a house full of women and aunts and cousins who all sang in girl groups, who all made their name, made their money and supported their family. Cissy Houston supported their entire family by singing with a group called The Sweet Inspirations. By the way, they used to sing backup with Elvis Presley. They went on tour with Elvis. Do you want to see my face when I realized that? Do you know how I feel about Elvis? My mother is listening, she’s the only one who will understand. Elvis was my first W.C.W., my Crush of the Week. I had an Elvis bedspread and an Elvis lamp in my room as a child. But, you know, like, they were exquisitely trained at those exact kinds of doo-wop harmonies, those exact kinds of arrangements that make you want to sing along.

wesley morris

Yes.

jenna wortham

That was her training.

wesley morris

So, in 1990, Whitney’s a huge success. In 1990, she goes in the studio with Babyface and L.A. Reid —

jenna wortham

What? No, she did not.

wesley morris

Gets the sound of the moment.

jenna wortham

I love it.

wesley morris

Like, she was also interested in staying current. She got super current working with L.A. and Babyface. Does “I’m Your Baby Tonight,” the first single of which is a really good example of what we’ve been talking about. It is a great song. We’re just going to go right to the middle of the song —

jenna wortham

OK.

wesley morris

Which is the, it’s when the song starts shooting all these fireworks all over the place. You know what it is.

jenna wortham

Can’t wait.

[music – whitney houston, “i’m your baby tonight”]
archived recording (whitney houston)

(SINGING) Whatever I do, boy, it’s all about you, baby. And ain’t it the truth, boy. I’m helplessly in love with you. What else can I do, boy, but be there for you, baby. You got a, you got a way that you’re making me feel I can, feel I can do any, do anything.

jenna wortham

This is a dangerous song to listen to in the morning, because I might end up pregnant after. You know, Whitney always wanted to stay current. And she did try to stay very current, but she wasn’t always on the right side of current.

wesley morris

No.

jenna wortham

And I think this is sort of when that starts to shift for her because she’s working with L.A. Reid and Babyface —

wesley morris

Who were taking “New Jack Swing” from Teddy Riley —

jenna wortham

That’s right.

wesley morris

And trying to apply it to their sound.

jenna wortham

They were trying to apply it to their sound, but what they were doing also was kind of, they were still kind of creating this, you know, super noir, L.A. after hours, smoky club.

wesley morris

That’s exactly —

jenna wortham

But that’s not really, I mean, because this album’s, I just, I think it’s interesting to look at sales numbers, too, so this album sells 10 million copies worldwide, which is half of what her last album, the “Whitney” album, which we were just listening to did. So, something is definitely is shifting in the cultural landscape and the musical landscape in terms of what the kids or what people are listening to globally. And if you think about, I mean, I hadn’t realized until you just said it, but that Janet Jackson was doing “Pleasure Principle,” then —

wesley morris

“Rhythm Nation” came out —

jenna wortham

“Rhythm Nation,” that starts leading to En Vogue. That starts leading to this whole other generation of women pop music, that’s a lot more geometric. It’s a lot edgier. It’s a lot more about the shapes, the body and the sound, while Whitney is still basically doing cruise ship music, even though I want to be on that cruise. I don’t ever want to get off of that cruise, but it is, like, the — what’s that, is it the Frasier title credits that’s just like the line, the outline of the city. I mean, she’s making music to score that animated intro, where they’re making music that is meant to be played at 2:00 a.m. in a dungeon.

wesley morris

I mean, Madonna is doing “Vogue” at this point, you know. Madonna is —

jenna wortham

So, “Vogue” is out and that is the sound. I mean, when you think about the, so, if you think about the early, early ‘90s, like, it’s that sound. It’s not this sound, even though this is a fantastic song.

wesley morris

She winds up catching up. When things get grim, sad or in decline for her, then she sort of turns to quote “disco” unquote.

jenna wortham

Yes.

wesley morris

But she is playing to an adult contemporary sound at this point.

jenna wortham

Right.

wesley morris

But what’s great about “I’m Your Baby Tonight” as a song, is that it really is like a perfect wedding of cruise ship and what was on the radio at the time. I can’t think of an artist who had a better, let’s just start with ‘85 to ‘93 or ‘94, right. I can’t think of an artist who has had a more iconic run, I mean, in terms of songs —

jenna wortham

Oh yes, yes. That’s it.

wesley morris

During this period —

jenna wortham

Yes, yes.

wesley morris

Not only does she have the first album, and then “Whitney,” and then “The Bodyguard” soundtrack, she does that, that “Whitney Sings to the Troops” —

jenna wortham

Yes.

wesley morris

That show —

jenna wortham

Which she did multiple times. She was always performing for the troops.

wesley morris

But there’s one, it’s one they recorded and released and sold, and that sold a lot. And she does the National Anthem.

jenna wortham

Oh, right, right.

wesley morris

Which everybody knows is the greatest national anthem ever sung. We all know it.

jenna wortham

I’m in agreement.

wesley morris

Also, not only is it the greatest national anthem ever sung, it is the greatest song, I would say, ever lip synced, because you can watch it 1,000 times and still not believe that they recorded. She’s singing from a master. The microphone was off. The mic was not even on that day, which is why she would also stand 10 feet away from it while she sang. But her lip syncing is, I mean, she is singing that song. And the mic is off, but she’s singing.

jenna wortham

She’s still singing.

wesley morris

She still singing.

jenna wortham

She’s still singing.

[music – whitney houstong, “star-spangled banner”]
archived recording (whitney houston)

(SINGING) Oh, say can you see, by the dawn’s early light.

wesley morris

First of all, what they did was they changed the time. So normally the Star-Spangled Banner operates at a 3/4 time, which is a waltz pace. But Whitney and her musical arranger — her regular musical arranger Rickey Minor — decided to make it a 4/4 time, so that it’d be easier for her to do her, to be Whitney Houston while singing it. That was controversial to purists.

archived recording (whitney houston)

(SINGING) And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air.

wesley morris

Well, the other thing, of course, is the lip syncing. If she didn’t sing it live, is that patriotic? And just crazy questions around what it meant for Whitney to lip sync the national anthem.

jenna wortham

Oh my goodness.

wesley morris

Nobody could tell. I’m telling you, you watch it now, she is singing the national anthem. And, I’m sorry, she sang it.

jenna wortham

Oh, she sang it.

wesley morris

Oh, she sang it.

archived recording (whitney houston)

(SINGING) Banner yet waves.

O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave.

jenna wortham

It’s funny, too, because this is where my memory blanks out around Whitney. I actually, I actually kind of came into consciousness around — don’t laugh, don’t hate me, you always give me a look when I tell you sort of where my cultural references come from. My cultural reference with Whitney Houston starts two years later in 1992, when “The Bodyguard” comes out, so just rest. And leave it alone.

wesley morris

Oh, no, no, I think that’s —

jenna wortham

Don’t judge me.

wesley morris

But —

jenna wortham

And then I had to work my way backwards. So I didn’t really have, I didn’t really — she wasn’t formative to my female identity in the same way that a Janet or an En Vogue or Madonna was. And that soundtrack was huge.

wesley morris

Right. I mean, everybody’s got their favorite song from this, from that soundtrack. But really, there’s only one song.

jenna wortham

There’s only one song.

wesley morris

There’s only one song, and it’s just going to play right now.

[music – whitney houston, “i will always love you”]
archived recording (whitney houston)

(SINGING) If I should stay —

wesley morris

You can’t even talk during this.

archived recording (whitney houston)

(SINGING) I would only be in your way.

So I’ll go, but I know, I’ll think of you every step of the way.

And I —

wesley morris

Oh my God, OK, I’m going to talk now because —

jenna wortham

The only thing to say, though, just coming out of that is —

wesley morris

Jesus Christ?

jenna wortham

No, it’s emotional. It’s emotional, because this is, because even though everything else that was going on in her life — she was about to meet Bobby, she was getting addicted to coke, like, she still had it. She still had it.

wesley morris

This, I would say, is the most perfect vocal recording of all time.

archived recording (whitney houston)

(SINGING) Bitter sweet memories, that is all I’m taking with me. So goodbye, please don’t cry —

wesley morris

There are lots of perfect recordings. I think this just happens to be the most perfect. There is a chemical response. You just, when you hear her, when you hear —

archived recording (whitney houston)

(SINGING) And I will always love you!

wesley morris

— you just stop what you’re doing. I have heard this song, what, 1,000 times? Ever, I don’t, I stop what I am doing to listen to her sing it. I don’t listen to it idly. I can’t think of very many records that just, like, arrest me in the way that this one does.

jenna wortham

Yeah.

wesley morris

And it has everything to do with the arrangement, the vocal. And talk about being on a cruise ship. The solo on this record is a saxophone.

jenna wortham

I was actually looking at the list of what happened at the ‘94 Grammys that year, and her only loss that night was the female R&B vocal category, which was the Toni Braxton for “Another Sad Love Song.” So, you think about what R&B was doing at this time, it was not that.

archived recording (whitney houston)

(SINGING) And happiness.

But above all this, I wish you luck.

And I will always —

jenna wortham

I do want to talk a little bit about what it meant in 1992 that her biggest song, and the song that earned her all the recognition that we now kind of associate with her, was “I Will Always Love You.”

wesley morris

Yes.

jenna wortham

I just, I actually think this is a really important pivotal —

wesley morris

A song written by a woman, Dolly Parton. A song written by woman, Dolly Parton, yes, and it’s unequivocally, hands down, just a fantastic, phenomenal song. But I do think that Whitney singing this song and it being this landmark anthem of her career does explain what happens for the second half of her life. And I think it does, I think we can look and extrapolate about what was going on with her attraction to Bobby Brown and her, you know, ride on the wild side and her path into what many people thought then was darkness. Which was just that again, I mean, what is that song about to you? If you had to put just, like, in three words, what is that song about to you? Devotion to your lover, whoever he or she may be.

jenna wortham

Yeah, and that lover and that devotion is as pure and as neutered as a Barbie doll with —

wesley morris

But they’re breaking up, though. It’s a break-up song, though. It’s, like, a we’re not together song anymore.

jenna wortham

Of course, that’s fine.

wesley morris

And I’m never going to forget that we had this.

jenna wortham

Sure, and so was “Stay” by Jodeci, which was also a huge hit in 1992, which I hope we can just play a couple of bars from.

[music – jodeci, “stay”]
jenna wortham

I actually do think there was something very repressed in Whitney about her sexuality, and there is something — and I’m not talking about however we wanted to find her sexuality. I’m just talking about her ability —

wesley morris

As an artist, yes, no —

jenna wortham

To express it as a woman, to not have to be desexual — she was, I mean, as beautiful as she was, and as incredibly dynamic and charismatic, she was not, she wasn’t someone you looked at and lusted over. You didn’t have impure thoughts when you looked at Whitney Houston. I still don’t. You look at her, and you just want to eat a piece of cake. You know, she’s just, she’s just perfect.

wesley morris

And she —

jenna wortham

She’s an ice cream sundae that you eat The Max, the diner from “Saved by the Bell.”

wesley morris

God bless you, yes.

jenna wortham

She’s just perfect. And all the other music at the time, I just —

wesley morris

This is a great point.

jenna wortham

I just want to go through what else was coming out in 1992 and what was on top of R&B and hip hop charts, OK. “Diamond and Pearls,” Prince. You know? “My Lovin’ Never Gonna Get It,” En Vogue. “Come and Talk To Me,” Jodeci. “Do It to Me,” Lionel Richie. “In the Closet,” Michael Jackson. “End of the Road,” Boyz II Men. I mean, that is also a song about a break-up. And that is also a song about devotion. The difference is, I want to be in seven minutes in heaven with Boyz II Men on the closet. If “The Greatest Love of All” comes on I’m like, we got to go in the kitchen and have a snack. This is actually impure. The devil is going to strike me down if I have an impure, lusty thought during “I Will Always Love You.” Not true for Tevin Campbell or Mary J. Blige or anybody else who was making music.

wesley morris

No, it’s true, and —

jenna wortham

I just think there was this way in which Whitney’s career had really pushed her into this mold where the only type of woman she could be was a matriarch, even before she was ever even 30.

wesley morris

And at the same time this is happening, you have a person like Janet Jackson —

jenna wortham

Yes, this is the thing.

wesley morris

Who, during the same period, revealed, came out as, and it was ‘91 — “The Love Will Never Do Without You” video comes out. And the world stops, because pure, innocent Janet is wearing a midriff.

jenna wortham

Yes.

wesley morris

And a blonde wig.

jenna wortham

Yes.

wesley morris

We can discuss this later. Midriff, being lusted after by Antonio Sabàto Jr., while John [INAUDIBLE] was dancing somewhere in a piece of, like, plastic. I don’t know what he’s doing. But he’s also in the video. But, I mean, this was a time during which you had these pop stars exploring their sexuality, being, you had Madonna just being Madonna.

jenna wortham

The leather and the buckles and the lace and the thigh highs, whereas Whitney Houston was still dressing like she was going to church. She was still dressing the way that Cissy wanted her to dress, the way that Aunty Ree — she was dressing like your aunt. She was dressing like your grandma. She was dressing like she still shopped on the ritzy rack at the Salvation Army. And I don’t see that to be shady about like the cost the clothes. I just mean in the sense of it was all about the drape, she’s all about the tasteful cleavage.

wesley morris

She was a classic entertainer.

jenna wortham

A well-placed rhinestone brooch. Whereas these women were in, like, I mean, the shine, the patent leather, and the angles —

wesley morris

The bustier — I mean, Madonna —

jenna wortham

The boots, everything.

wesley morris

Madonna’s “Truth or Dare” was the year before “The Bodyguard.”

jenna wortham

So that says a lot. So, I just think —

wesley morris

“The Bodyguard” soundtrack.

jenna wortham

— it’s important to understand, maybe, where Whitney was going when her life seemed to take this turn. Because I actually think there’s no way that Whitney does not end up with Bobby Brown. Like, I actually don’t think there’s an alternative timeline where that doesn’t happen.

wesley morris

Speak. Go on.

jenna wortham

To me, at least, there’s one lens with which to view their relationship and to understand the role that he played for her and her attraction to him, and also what she was trying to move away from. And I think you can understand it if you understand when and how they met. Do you know when and how they met?

wesley morris

No.

jenna wortham

So Bobby and Whitney meet on the night that her life changed forever, in more ways than one, because here’s what happened that night. She was performing, if you recall, at the Soul Train Music Awards in April 1989. That’s the night where she was booed for being too white, and according to Cissy Houston’s bio, she went on stage. People started screaming and booing, and somebody in the crowd started yelling White-T, White-T, like it was something clever. And then she meets Bobby Brown.

wesley morris

We are so mean to each other, because those same people were probably the first people at the funeral trying to jump on the casket.

jenna wortham

But that’s always the case with Black artists, though.

wesley morris

Yeah, I know. I know.

jenna wortham

That’s like, it comes up in the conversations we have about even Drake or Beyonce or Michael. It’s about ownership and this feeling of obligation to the Black community and this feeling of when someone is or isn’t marketed to what’s seen as a core audience — when someone is decolorized to be more mainstream, what it means to be a crossover hit, what it means — again, that’s why I keep talking about her hair. It means something that Whitney, we never saw her real hair. She had the lion’s mane for a long time. She had the adorable triangle curly bob, which shout out to all the curly-haired girls, myself included, who try to get that bob. It’s not a good look unless you’re Whitney Houston in a wig. That is always the thing that comes up, which is whose artist are you? And the fact that she never knew. And she wasn’t really trying to know. It made her, it’s the reason she got, I mean, it’s what happened when she went to the Soul Train Awards. And she wasn’t dancing. She wasn’t bringing out any of the cool young, you know, rappers on stage. She looked like she was on her way to church.

wesley morris

Yeah, and —

jenna wortham

People don’t know what to do with it.

wesley morris

And Bobby Brown, who was the biggest, who was also one of the biggest pop stars in the world himself in ‘89 —

jenna wortham

Very Black.

wesley morris

Very Black, but also, and has a kind of street thing that is so the opposite. If you’re a Whitney Houston fan, the last person you want to see her with is Bobby Brown.

jenna wortham

She’s from New Jersey. She’s from Georgia, and then she’s from New Jersey. So there was something that Bobby unleashed in her and allowed her to be, that Arista didn’t let her be, Clive Davis didn’t let her be, her mother didn’t let her be, her father didn’t let her be. He let her basically be the sexual Black woman.

wesley morris

And he, I mean, and he changed the second half of her career.

jenna wortham

And her life.

wesley morris

And how we perceive her is almost entirely through Bobby Brown’s relationship to her in some ways. OK, let’s take a break.

jenna wortham

That’s a good place to stop. OK, let’s have some water. We’ll come back.

wesley morris

We’ll pay a bill or two.

jenna wortham

Yeah.

wesley morris

We’ll be right back.

[music]
wesley morris

What do we just do? What do we just, we just spend all that time establishing that Whitney is as great a singer as we already knew her to be?

jenna wortham

Yes.

wesley morris

We did this to provide some sort of countervailing force against this idea that she was purely tragic comic in some way, and that her importance has gotten away from her or has been taken away from her in death.

jenna wortham

But it’s more than just that it was taken away from her. It’s that the way we remember her has been manipulated — and it’s been completely wallpapered over by all the extremely visible and extremely tragic things that happened toward the end of her life, including but not limited to, her rocky and highly publicized marriage to Bobby Brown. The drug use, the lying about the drug use, the public appearances while she was clearly on lots of drugs. The loss of her voice, and the way she became a punch line. If you think about an artist like Amy Winehouse, who was someone who, in terms of watching someone’s life unravel until its end, we have never been closer to it than we were with Amy Winehouse. And yet, however, we talk about the music when we talk about Amy Winehouse.

wesley morris

But I think the difference, and it’s is a crucial difference, and I think that’s one of the reasons —

jenna wortham

Break it down for me, papa.

wesley morris

— I think it’s important we do this show. I think that one of the things that makes a difference between an Amy Winehouse and a Whitney Houston, or a Prince and a Whitney Houston, is you have a kind of cognitive dissonance with Whitney Houston. The darkness and the grimness and the pain and the addiction, that wasn’t in the music. It wasn’t as though there’s this catalog that correlates with this behavior —

jenna wortham

Right.

wesley morris

It’s the idea that the woman singing that beautiful Dolly Parton song is also now running around, well, high. It’s just that those things don’t compute. And I think —

jenna wortham

Well, that’s actually, I mean, sorry interrupt to you. And that’s a great point, but I want to ask you, though, but why can’t we reconcile with what the apparatus of celebrity does to celebrities?

wesley morris

Because we like narratives, right? And what the problem is with Whitney Houston is there are two. There is the wholesome, pure angel, and there is this devil that has brought her down from heaven to voicelessness, basically — the cost her voice, cost her her credibility —

jenna wortham

And her wealth.

wesley morris

And her, I mean, it cost her a lot.

jenna wortham

Everything. It drained her of everything. So, I think that if she had been seeing, if she had been Etta James and there was all of this scorched earth pain in her songs and her singing, I think it would be much easier to square that with what wound up happening to her. But there’s just no musical corollary for Whitney Houston with her actual life. Right. Part of the way to understand that, too, is in that 2009 Oprah interview, which everyone should go back and rewatch, just because there’s a point in that interview where Oprah keeps saying to her, your voice is a national treasure. Your voice is a national treasure. And Whitney is, like, recoiling a little bit each time she’s saying it. And you’re just, like, that’s exactly it. Like, Whitney is not her voice. That was the thing that she used, and that was the things she wanted to impart to the world. But people couldn’t separate the two. And she never had the agency. And this is what happens when you rob people of their agency, and you force them to fit into some sort of weird, yeah.

wesley morris

So, to that point, she was on tour with Bobby in 1999. They do a show together in Leipzig, Germany. Let’s just, let’s listen to what that sounded like.

[music – whitney houston and bobby brown]
wesley morris

I mean, he’s just on stage kind of bouncing around, and then she’s on the other side of the stage.

jenna wortham

And then they come together and they start, like, bumping and grinding kind of on stage.

There are both echoes of what they used to be.

wesley morris

It’s so evident in this clip that, like, neither of them is nearly close to the vocal capacity they had even five years ago.

archived recording (whitney houston and bobby brown)

[SINGING]

jenna wortham

Oof. Yeah.

wesley morris

But she’s muscling her way through these songs.

jenna wortham

She is, she is. It’s this clip, though, that really helps me understand — it gave me a lot more empathy for the trainwreck that was Bobby Brown’s life as well. He was in New Edition, a band that was horribly taken advantage of. Their tour bus would pick them up for the projects in Boston, where they were – they formed the group themselves and drop them back off with a couple of dollars in change. But he had a tough life because of the music industry, because of the way it used him. And then when they were done with him and he could no longer deliver, discarded him. This is what Whitney told Oprah about Bobby.

archived recording (whitney houston)

I just wanted to be normal. I wanted to have fun. I wanted, I mean, I had no normal 20s. I had no normal 30s. My life was full of making records and doing tours and traveling the world and going to every place. And it was too much. It was just too much. Too much to try to live up to, to try to be. You know? And I wanted out at some point.

archived recording (oprah winfrey)

You wanted out?

archived recording (whitney houston)

I did.

archived recording (oprah winfrey)

Was marrying Bobby a way to be out?

archived recording (whitney houston)

In a sense, because he allowed me to be me. He was fun.

wesley morris

He saw something in her that maybe confirmed what she suspected about herself, or maybe she had never thought about it before and really liked it.

jenna wortham

Yeah, I think both things are true. I think, of course, both things are true. How could, and even if she didn’t deep down want to be a bad girl, how could after being years and years of being forced to perform as a good girl, do you not want to see what it feels like to be the black swan? Like, how do you not engage? How do you not dive into that a little bit?

wesley morris

It wasn’t just that Whitney was an angel and he was the devil. I think there was a kind of snobbery about our national treasures sort of being kept polished. And he tarnished whatever it was we thought about her.

jenna wortham

Yeah.

wesley morris

And some of this is a kind of racism, right? Like, some of this is a kind of fear of Black men getting near anything white people like. There was something really incongruous with this woman and that man going to have a baby together. What?

jenna wortham

And that’s also, I mean, it wasn’t just scandalous to white people. Black people were also just, like, girl, Whitney?

wesley morris

No.

jenna wortham

Whitney what are you doing?

wesley morris

And the thing that’s interesting about listening to that clip from the concert in Germany was they both sound terrible. Bobby Brown had a great voice, too.

[music – bobby brown, “don’t be cruel”]
archived recording (bobby brown)

(SINGING) Girl, the only thing that matters in my life, is that I’m down for you and treat you right.

wesley morris

It was different from Whitney’s, and it had this thing that Whitney developed but always had a little bit of, which was stank. She could sing with a little bit of stank, and Bobby was all stank all the time.

jenna wortham

Yeah, that’s real.

wesley morris

And stank basically is this characteristic of singing, where you’re kind of growling. You have control over your pitch and your timbre. But your timbre is also very low to the earth. It’s on a high note. He had control, though. He had a really good R&B, like, blues voice.

jenna wortham

Yeah.

wesley morris

And in the years after they got together, by ‘99, he does, he sounds terrible.

jenna wortham

Yeah.

wesley morris

And —

jenna wortham

Yeah, and that’s a big part of their dynamic, too, is that there was a jealousy, too, of her and her career. And you have to wonder, too, about whether or not she wanted to destroy herself as much as he did. Because I think that’s, it’s —

wesley morris

As much as he wanted to destroy her?

jenna wortham

I think so. I think there was a level of, like —

wesley morris

Love and envy.

jenna wortham

I was going to say, maybe just, like, self-deprecation and self-harm. And so, I mean, I think she wanted to distort herself and see what would come out the other side. I can’t imagine she thought that would come out the other side, but I think she did want to warp this lily-white version of Whitney Houston. I think she just didn’t realize how much he wanted to warp that, too, because he wanted what she had. Let’s just actually talk about what their relationship was like when we saw it play out in a public sphere. It wasn’t the two of them having lunch with their toddler. It was the two of them humping on each other. It was Whitney going on TV talking about mmm, we make love. I mean, she was really, like, she wanted America to know I am not your virgin. I am not your good girl. And then 2005 happens, and —

[music]
jenna wortham

“Being Bobby Brown” airs on Bravo, and it’s a reality show that Bobby Brown agrees to do. Whitney’s on it, because they’re married and it’s about his life. And she does it for him. Whitney doesn’t want to be on a reality show but she says, I know that you’re struggling. Maybe this is a moment for you to have a comeback. She agrees to be on the show, and what we get a window into is essentially any confirmation of the fact that you might have had that they were actually crackheads. They spend the whole time talking about having sex. They’re running around in this weird dysfunctional household. I mean, it’s weird because —

wesley morris

Bobbi Kristina is watching all of it happen, too.

jenna wortham

Bobbi Kristina is watching all of it happen. There are these moments when not only they talk about how much sex they’re having and they go into kind of graphic detail about it, which, which is fine. But it’s still a lot. But there’s also they talk about bodily function. They talk a lot about their bowel movements. They talk about being involved with, helping each other have bowel movements. I mean, “T.M.I.” had not even entered into the lexicon when the show was on the air. But if it hadn’t before, it was definitely after. I mean, people couldn’t deal with — maybe they could have coped with all the things about her being with Bobby Brown, but that was the last straw.

wesley morris

There has never been a more famous person to go from most famous to where she wound up.

jenna wortham

Yeah.

wesley morris

And for me at least, you factor in this really depressing detail. She was good on the show.

jenna wortham

She was the best part on the show.

wesley morris

She gave you —

jenna wortham

That’s what, that’s what she —

wesley morris

You didn’t pay for it but you got your money’s worth.

jenna wortham

Oh, you got your money’s worth. And also, that was when the phrase “Oh hell to the no” came from, because that’s what Whitney used to say on the show and it became — like, we all know it now. It’s a phrase. Whitney coined that phrase, and it became a thing on t-shirts and bags. So, it was the train wreck that everybody — we didn’t know we wanted to see it but we wanted to see it.

wesley morris

We watched it anyway.

jenna wortham

Oh, we all watched it.

wesley morris

Oh God. It’s just really grim, because she had before the show, in ‘98 or ‘99, she put out “My Love is Your Love.” Her voice was obviously going. Her voice was going as early as ‘96. I mean, it doesn’t sound the same on the “Waiting to Exhale” soundtrack, which is ‘95. The “Preacher’s Wife” from the following year. It’s her first real gospel recording. The way you hear it now, it’s like she’s really leaning on gospel structure to get her through those songs. She sounds good in a lot of the songs, but it’s not like —

jenna wortham

And it’s a well-trained diaphragm, too, just to push the air out.

wesley morris

Right, it’s not the ease with which she did “I Will Always Love You” or you know, she was really using gospel to get through these songs.

[music – whitney houston, “i love the lord”]
archived recording (whitney houston)

Oh, I love the Lord, I sure do, surely do love the Lord.

jenna wortham

And I think, too, what you’re saying about the narrative and the duality of the Whitney that we thought we knew versus the reality of the Whitney we were realizing was existing, is that like at the time of that reality show she had been in “The Preacher’s Wife,” she had been in “Waiting to Exhale,” where she continued to play this churchy archetype of the sweet, sort of Southern like good girl. And so, to have that juxtaposition with her in a visor, extremely sweaty, coming out of a club at like 2 a.m. with Bobby Brown on her arm, and then reports of using all of her money and he was cheating on her and they were in this abusive relationship. And it was just, like, whiplash.

wesley morris

Right, and before that happened, I mean, her last big cultural moment as a singer was the “My Love Was Your Love” album, which gave us that song. It gave us “It’s Not Right But It’s OK,” which is still an anthem.

jenna wortham

Still plays in the clubs.

wesley morris

Still an anthem.

jenna wortham

Still comes on the disco floor.

wesley morris

And everybody knows it. It’s a — “the disco floor.” [LAUGHS]

jenna wortham

Sorry, dance floor. The disco —

wesley morris

You know, it’s, she, she still had it. The production was doing a really good job of making the most with what she had of that instrument.

jenna wortham

So what do we do with all this, though, because we have looked at what we want to remember, and we’ve looked at what most people tend to remember. So, where do we leave, where do we leave this conversation?

wesley morris

You really want to know?

jenna wortham

Mm-hm.

wesley morris

OK, well, here’s the deal. Where we should go is back to 2010, when Rolling Stone put out what I thought was a great list of — it was a survey of all of your favorite music people, people you’ve never heard of as well, generating this list of the 100 greatest singers of all time. And I remember reading it and seeing Whitney at, you’re never going to guess what number, want to guess?

jenna wortham

Should be in, like, the top dozen.

wesley morris

Whitney’s 34.

jenna wortham

No.

wesley morris

Do you know who number —

jenna wortham

Blasphemy, blasphemy!

wesley morris

Do you know who number 33 is?

jenna wortham

Who?

wesley morris

Steve Wynwood.

jenna wortham

Who the eff is that?

wesley morris

I remember seeing that list and thinking, instead, Michael Jackson is number 25? That’s blasphemy. That’s crazy.

jenna wortham

Yeah, they should be embarrassed. They should take that article down.

wesley morris

So, I’m going to rebuke this list —

jenna wortham

Yes, oh my god. Yes.

wesley morris

That has her at number 34.

jenna wortham

Oh my God, yes.

wesley morris

It’s a great list. Whitney’s number one.

jenna wortham

I support you and your Change.org petition to get her —

wesley morris

They made Aretha number one, and I understand that these are, these are traditionalists, obviously.

jenna wortham

Yeah, of course.

wesley morris

I would make Whitney number one. Now, there’s an argument to be made against her, which is that, like, longevity and the quality of the voice for as long as — Aretha has sounded good for almost half a century, you know what I mean? Think about that. But in terms of the instrument we had and what was done with it when it was in its prime —

jenna wortham

Yeah, I think that’s right.

wesley morris

I mean, to the extent that I’m religious, that voice is a gift from God. We’re just going to end this show with what, I mean, I think is the greatest thing she’s ever sung. I think it might be one of the most moving performances by any singer I’ve ever seen in my entire life. Not one of her hits but the Dreamgirls song, and I’m telling you —

jenna wortham

Oh my God —

wesley morris

I am not going.

jenna wortham

Because she’s not going.

wesley morris

Get a tissue, y’all.

[music – whitney houston, “and i am telling you i’m not going”]
archived recording (whitney houston)^

(SINGING) And I am telling you, I am not going. See you’re the best man I’ve ever known. There’s no way I can ever go, no no no no way. No no no no way I’m living without you.

wesley morris

I mean, I don’t want to end the show, but I think we should just get out of here because that — Whitney just did it for us.

jenna wortham

There’s nothing else we can do after that, except to bask in that moment.

archived recording (whitney houston)^

I’m staying, I’m staying. And you, and you, and you. You’re gonna love me, oh yes, oh yes you are! Oh yes you are, you’re gonna love me! Ooh ooh love me, ooh ooh ooh love me!

jenna wortham

Oh, Whitney. We will always love you.

wesley morris

Yep.

jenna wortham

Forever and ever, amen.

wesley morris

Forever and ever, amen.

Still Processing is a product of The New York Times. It’s produced by Jenna Weiss-Berman, Henry Molofsky, Rikki Novetsky and Max Linksy from Pineapple Street Media, with editorial oversight from Sasha Weiss, Lisa Tovan, and Samantha Henig.

jenna wortham

Our theme music is by Kindness. It’s called “World Restart from the album “Otherness.” You can find all of our episodes and fun things at nytimes.com/StillProcessing. And if you like what you hear, leave us a review on iTunes.

wesley morris

Our phone number, if you’re inclined to do that, is 404-458-4237, aka 405-45-VIBES. Jenna, what’s going on in the future for you?

jenna wortham

I cannot wait to go back to Brooklyn Museum’s current installation called “We Wanted a Revolution.” It’s Black feminist art from the ‘60s and ‘70s, and, literally, think of a Black feminist, think of a Black artist, think of a Black lesbian who was alive with that time, pull their name out of a hat. They’re in this space. It is incredible. There is a giant framed thing on the wall that just says cooking and smoking, which is going to go on my tombstone. And it’s about, anyway that’s like a new media like zine that came out in that time. But anyway, it’s an incredible retrospective of a moment in time that is not unlike a moment in time we’re living through. Highly recommend it. I went for the opening. I cannot wait to go back and luxuriate in all the art. I hope you’ll come with me.



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