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Charles Aaron

Charles Aaron is a writer and editor who lives in Durham, N.C. with his wife Tristin, son Oscar, dog Bessie, and cat Milo. His favorite kinds of pie, in order, are Key Lime, Apple, and Cherry. Donations are appreciated.

"Nippy’s Got the Range: How Whitney Houston Snatched Back the Ballad and Set It Free"
In life and death, Whitney Houston has been a strawman more than a fully fleshed-out human being. In reaction to her work, an impressive array of cultural scholars and critics over the years have chided her for representing a dishonest or insufficient artistic vision or have championed her for signifying as a triumphant, world-beating survivor. The goal of my paper is, in part, a rehabilitation, but from a different point of view and with a possibly more expansive goal. I’ll argue that while Houston may have been unable, via her own lyrics, songwriting, recordings, or interviews, to directly give us “knowledge of her particular black female pain,” as critic Doreen St. Felix asserted in a review of Nick Broomfield’s 2017 documentary Whitney: Can I Be Me?; she was able to accomplish a multitude of stunning achievements, even beyond what we’ve already documented.
I want to explore how Houston did all this by transforming an entire pop song form. Effectively, she foregrounded women’s concerns in pop by reorienting, with an Olympian level of vocal authority, the pop-music template for the Ballad. I’ll track how she undeniably snatched back the ballad from white rock singers who had, with the music-industry wind at their backs, colonized it during the 1970s. The hard-rock/heavy-metal bros who strutted into VIP carrying the mantle of the “Power Ballad” (which validated boys and flattered girls), were easily exposed as a laughable charade by Houston, after a smirk and a quick exhalation.
She became, in large part by live performances, the Voice of America at Her Absolute Best. Of course, America is rarely at her absolute best, savaged from within by white racism, patriarchal sexism, dark money, and corrupted values. As a black bisexual woman from a strict Christian home who became the carefully groomed pet project of a legendary Svengali (Clive Davis), Houston fell prey to it all. But she also navigated the phony, hyper-masculine morality of the pop-culture industry and created the post-American Idol pop world we inhabit today.