Whitney Houston, 1963-2012

Death of a singer blessed with a voice that was "good to vowels".

Whitney Houston was found dead yesterday in a room at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles. She was 48. For some years before her premature death, her life had been blighted by cocaine abuse.

It's as if, writes the New Yorker's Sasha Frere-Jones in perhaps the most thoughtful reaction to Houston's death so far, "we've watched Whitney Houston die in front of us, slowly and unmistakably, for more than a decade". Frere-Jones goes on:

Her second album, Whitney, laid out the rough scheme she followed for the rest of her career: ballads as the crossword puzzles she would complete minutes before you, and dance numbers as her firing range. Michael Jackson represented the ecstatic and the untouchable; Whitney Houston was always human, along every axis. Her triumphs felt like things you could imagine, just barely. The peak of Whitney was "I Wanna Dance With Somebody," which forms a perfect companion to [Michael] Jackson's "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'," his expression of loss of self within the joy of dance. Houston's spirit never made her seem distant, so it was plausible (the pliable listener wanted to believe) that she might dance with us, though by the time she got to the chorus she might easily be anywhere, with anyone. Her voice was good to vowels, and this time around it was "o" that won the lottery.

Here is that voice being good to the vowels in "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" (1987):

 

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

Harry Styles. Photo: Getty
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How podcasts are reviving the excitement of listening to the pop charts

Unbreak My Chart and Song Exploder are two music programmes that provide nostalgia and innovation in equal measure.

“The world as we know it is over. The apo­calypse is nigh, and he is risen.” Although these words came through my headphones over the Easter weekend, they had very little to do with Jesus Christ. Fraser McAlpine, who with Laura Snapes hosts the new pop music podcast Unbreak My Chart, was talking about a very different kind of messiah: Harry Styles, formerly of the boy band One Direction, who has arrived with his debut solo single just in time to save the British charts from becoming an eternal playlist of Ed Sheeran’s back-catalogue.

Unbreak My Chart is based on a somewhat nostalgic premise. It claims to be “the podcast that tapes the Top Ten and then talks about it at school the next day”. For those of us who used to do just that, this show takes us straight back to Sunday afternoons, squatting on the floor with a cassette player, finger hovering over the Record button as that tell-tale jingle teased the announcement of a new number one.

As pop critics, Snapes and McAlpine have plenty of background information and anecdotes to augment their rundown of the week’s chart. If only all playground debates about music had been so well informed. They also move the show beyond a mere list, debating the merits of including figures for music streamed online as well as physical and digital sales in the chart (this innovation is partly responsible for what they call “the Sheeran singularity” of recent weeks). The hosts also discuss charts from other countries such as Australia and Brazil.

Podcasts are injecting much-needed innovation into music broadcasting. Away from the scheduled airwaves of old-style radio, new formats are emerging. In the US, for instance, Song Exploder, which has just passed its hundredth episode, invites artists to “explode” a single piece of their own music, taking apart the layers of vocal soundtrack, instrumentation and beats to show the creative process behind it all. The calm tones of the show’s host, Hrishikesh Hirway, and its high production values help to make it a very intimate listening experience. For a few minutes, it is possible to believe that the guests – Solange, Norah Jones, U2, Iggy Pop, Carly Rae Jepsen et al – are talking and singing only for you. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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