One of the major stories dominating headlines and newsfeeds for the past week has been the death of pop singer Whitney Houston. With all the publicity surrounding her death, we might be led to believe that Houston was a major artist or that her body of work is culturally significant. But that is simply not the case and her death, which occurred on the eve of this year’s Grammy ceremony, should be a reminder that much of what constitutes popular music is little more than inane tripe.
There is no question that Houston had great commercial success, as she was among the bestselling recording acts of all time and was the most awarded female musician. But this does not make her a great artist. Album sales are no measure of artistic talent. To argue otherwise would be like arguing that McDonalds makes good food because the fast food giant sells a lot of cheeseburgers or Transformers: Dark of the Moon is a good movie because it sold a lot of tickets. As for Houston’s accolades, most of these can be dismissed because the major awards ceremonies, especially for music and motion pictures, have little credibility. (Consider this: Ben Affleck and Nicolas Cage have Oscars for writing and acting, respectively, but Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Wells were only recognized with generic achievement awards.) These ceremonies are little more than three-hour advertisements for media conglomerates in which their most lucrative acts are displayed and awarded.
There is also no question that Houston, at the height of her fame, had impressive singing talent. Her performance of “The Star Spangled Banner” at Super Bowl XXV remains one of the most impressive renditions of the national anthem and many people who were teenagers in the mid-1990s will remember “I Will Always Love You” as a high school dance favorite (although the motion picture it was associated with isn’t remembered so fondly). But being a great performer is not the same as being a great artist. To be artistic requires creation or at least the arrangement or rearrangement of existing content into something new. Houston only wrote or produced a handful of her songs and none of those were her hit singles. She had talent and a voice, and sometimes it was a quite beautiful voice, but that is no more distinguished than the many forgettable winners of American Idol.
There is another important aspect of artistry that Houston, and much of pop music, fails to possess: substance. As she didn’t write the songs, Houston cannot be credited or criticized for their content. But even as the courier of music written by other people, there was nothing innovative or provocative about the music. Lyrically, her music consisted of cookie-cutter love ballads that had only the most superficial meanings. Pop music is generally intended to be filler, the kind of music that listeners appreciate more for the beat or the emotion it evokes rather than the lyrics. There is a place for that in the music scene; someone has to provide the tunes that young people listen to while dry humping on a Friday night. But the music’s utility is no excuse for its vapidity and we should not confuse it for great art.
The imbalance between Houston’s lack of artistic accomplishments and the importance being ascribed to her career are not new or unique. Plenty of dead celebrities get more recognition than they are due, especially if they pass under tragic circumstances. But the praise and significance being heaped on Houston’s memory does provide an opportunity to address the shallowness found in popular music and more broadly across the culture. I recently had the opportunity to examine the book and CD set Next Stop Vietnam – The War on Record, 1961 – 2008, which is a compilation of music and other audio artifacts from the Vietnam era. As I went through the thirteen (!) discs in the set I was astonished by the volume of music produced about the war, with some musicians supporting America’s military intervention (“It's America, Love It Or Leave It” by Ernest Tubb), others opposing it (“War” by Edwin Starr), and still more or reflecting on specific events or repercussions (“The Ballad Of My Lai” by Matt McKinney). I doubt a compilation of mainstream music reflecting on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would exceed a single disc.
Music does not necessarily need to deal with headline news in order to be great. Affairs of the heart are just as worthy of examination. But there is a significant divide between the pop music that is being thrust at us by media companies and the realities of consumers’ lives. Case in point: in the fall of 2008, when the American economy was collapsing, the song topping the Billboard chart was “Whatever You Like” by T.I., an anthem to mindless consumption if there ever was one. Aside from Bruce Springsteen’s recent track, “We Take Care of Our Own,” I cannot come up with a single pop artist (especially one who is under forty years old) who has addressed life in the post-TARP era or the general feeling of frustration, betrayal, and anger embodied by the Tea Party and the Occupy movements. That kind of disconnection renders pop music artistically irrelevant.
Pop music seems doomed to this irrelevancy for the time being. Part of what art is intended to do is to challenge the audience. Pop music has an inherent problem because it is a product that large media conglomerates aim to sell without getting into trouble with politicians or shareholders. When an artist attempts to challenge the listener, he or she risks his or her standing with the corporate masters. And as CD sales dry up and the profits from legal downloading fail to make up for the shortfall, major labels will be inclined to make safer choices. This means less challenging work and more irrelevant music.
One last thought: Whitney Houston’s one major claim as a performer was her singing ability and many major vocalists of previous generations made their mark on pop music on that talent alone. But in recent years even that has become a diminishing commodity as voices are digitally altered in post-production facilities. This renders even a performer’s musical skill superfluous and ultimately reduces him or her to a spokesperson for a product.
This very issue was addressed on Grammy night. Because Houston’s death overshadowed most everything else at the ceremony, one acceptance speech went largely unnoticed. Accepting the award for Best Rock Performance, Dave Grohl of The Foo Fighters proclaimed that “learning to do your craft, that’s the most important thing for people to do. . . . It’s not about what goes on in a computer.” Grohl’s comments, although nuanced and polite, were far more provocative than any outfit or stage piece employed by otherwise brain dead pop acts. This statement, spoken to a roomful of people who have made careers and fortunes from music as digitally altered as a cover model on a beauty magazine, was a moment of true rock and roll rebellion.
Artistic music will continue to be written, recorded, and listened to by a receptive audience. It may not find its way onto local Top 40 radio stations and it may not be as profitable as in the heydays of Bob Dylan or John Lennon or Nine Inch Nails or Tupac. But the fact that it exists might be more important than its level of exposure. Great art is usually countercultural to some degree anyway, so pushing musicians out of the mainstream or to its margins may effectively liberate them from the trappings of corporate culture and ultimately free musicians to be the artists that they want to be.