I knew Whitney Houston’s voice before I knew her face. She was a constant record on deck in my house, setting off a family get together or a typical Saturday night at home where I begged to stay up a little bit longer to listen to records—for-real records, vinyl—like the grown folks. Houston’s voice represented ‘grown folks talking’ but had enough effervescence that I could relate to as girlish charm. Houston’s vocal range relayed feelings and representations of sugary sweet to straight, no chaser. She could sing about loving a married man—definitely grown folks’ business—but still maintain the innocence of a school girl crush. My mom and I would dance around our great room lip synching her songs, her asking me who I loved, me declaring my name was not Susan. It was Gina and Whitney Houston’s voice was magic. Alongside Michael Jackson, she was the playlist of my childhood.
Sadly, it was my mom and me again as we listened to Houston’s funeral on the radio. We were stuck in traffic. It had to be fate, me listening to Houston one last time in the same way we were introduced: through the radio. Listening to the funeral instead of watching it on television or as it streamed across the internet triggered a nostalgic ache for Houston in the pit of my stomach, returning me to the same place as a five-year-old child who fell in love with the pretty voice from those Saturday nights.
For me, listening to Houston’s records and funeral on the radio resituated Houston as a vocalist. Detached from Houston’s well-documented shortcomings, listening to her funeral removed the static of her life that filtered her mastery of song and sound. In the last years of her life, Houston’s image was far removed from her stellar singing career. Houston’s personal conflicts and battles situated her as a fallen celebrity, quickly associating her with ill fitting jokes of drug abuse and caricatures of her former glory. Removing Houston from her sonic legacy strips her of the complexities of her persona that she highlighted and acknowledged using her voice, or as Dr. Guthrie Ramsey points out, her “instrument.” It is important to note Houston attempted to make her way back to music, slowly creeping back into public spotlight as a vocalist instead of a wayside star. Celebrity overpowered Houston’s humanity and it is unfortunate that her funeral reclaimed it. Thus, sound provides a space for rehabilitating Houston’s bruised reputation, providing an alternative, nonparodic reading of her life.
While listening to Houston’s funeral, I realized the significance of her sonic legacy, a reaffirmation of Houston’s mastery of song and voice through unending playlists and funeral performances. The radio provided a sonic space of reconciliation between Houston and her fans, uninterrupted by the visual whirl and the busyness of pomp and circumstance of a televised celebrity funeral. By listening to Houston’s funeral, the radio became a discursive space of performance, simultaneously retaining and (re)shaping Houston’s iconicity using sound as favorable space of reflection. Strictly listening to the funeral situated the listener in a position to recontextualize Houston’s legacy within sonic discourse and think about her against a musical backdrop which she constructed.
In considering Houston as not only a music but cultural icon, one must understand the significance of her prominence as a singer. Her career maps the trajectory of a post-Civil Rights black (women’s) experience, framing struggles of seeking out and validating new black identity markers within situating herself as a ‘black voice.’ Her catalog blends the secular with the sacred, effortlessly moving between gospel and pop music, frequently collapsing and creating a complex humanity within sonic soundscapes often restricted by industry and consumers alike. It is around these hybrid sonic-scapes that Houston’s funeral revolved.
Also, Houston’s funeral negotiated reconsiderations of the black church in the current popular cultural imagination, personifying grief and healing through sound. In a word, Houston’s funeral “took folks to church.” On display were prominent tropes of black cultural and musical tradition, parlaying call and response between speakers and attendees and improvisation of performers. In particular, Kim Burrell’s redressing of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” caters on numerous levels to intersection of Houston’s narrative and the role of spirituality in her life. Burrell used her voice and spirituality as a reflection of Houston’s spirituality while dictating how Houston’s life and image are redirected through song. Burrell’s retelling of Houston’s life pivots off Cooke’s original song as an acknowledged site of struggle and redemption. She improvises Cooke’s song to align with Houston’s literal birth (“She was born in New Jersey”) and the understanding of spiritual rebirth and death (“a change gonna come”).
In similar fashion to a church revival, Burrell performs her rendition of “A Change Gonna Come” as a testimony, pulling from her audience’s familiarity with the intonations, vocal runs, and whines of Sam Cooke’s performance. Burrell’s ‘remixing’ of Cooke’s song is, to an extent, an innovative form of sampling. By borrowing the familiarity of Cooke’s sound, Burrell is able to create a new sonic accompaniment. Overarching tropes of faith and redemption hinged upon the black oral tradition are intensified through using them to aurally frame Houston’s funeral. By strictly hearing Houston’s funeral, the listener becomes privy to not only the intersections of the black church and oral traditions but the unique interventions of sound and identity frequently understated in visual culture and discourse.
A fitting close to Houston’s funeral was the recording of her popular rendition of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You.” Houston’s voice rang out in the perfect intonation that solidified her place in music and cultural history, situated as a fitting goodbye to fans and this world. The tenderness of Houston’s delivery personifies the somberness of her funeral, a self-eulogy that harnesses its power from not only the moment but the untimeliness of her death. Houston’s last performance of “I Will Always Love You” detaches her from the paparazzi and scandal that suffocated her life. It is through sound that Houston’s legacy is revived.
As my mother dabbed tears away from the corners of her eyes while listening to the funeral, I silently hoped she would ask me who I loved. I would tell her I wasn’t Susan. And that I loved Whitney.
R.N. Bradley is a PhD candidate in African American Literature at Florida State University. She writes about African American literature, race and pop culture, Hip Hop, and her own awesomeness. She earned her BA in English from the Unsinkable Albany State University (GA) and a MA in African American and African Diaspora Studies from Indiana University Bloomington. Her dissertation project looks at negotiations of white hegemonic masculinity and race consciousness in 21st century African American literature and popular culture. You can read her work atAllHipHop, Newsone, TheLoop21, or her monthly column “The Race to Post” over atPopMatters. Scholar by day, unapologetic Down South Georgia Girl 24/7/365. Catch up with her awesomeness via twitter:@redclayscholar and her blog Red Clay Scholar (http://redclayscholar.blogspot.com).
With all the excitement over the new release of Mavis Staples’s You Are Not Alone (Anti-, produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy), I can’t help but be skeptical of the outpouring of Indie love for the album, even as I have been spinning (and enjoying) it myself. It isn’t the positive reaction to Staples’s talent that is surprising—at 70-plus years, Mavis has been exquisite for quite some time now—but rather the way in which critics have freighted her newest record with the “uplift” (AV Club) of a whole lot of souls that haven’t ever been to church (at least not in a good long while). Her voice is described as alternately “raw” (Paste) and full of a “depth, power, and warmth that seem increasingly rare in music today” (hear ya); Consequence of Sound, who cites Tweedy’s hand at the boards as the reason for all the current music blog attention, calls her voice “empathetic. . . powerful. . .soulful. . .touching” and “wise.” If the blogosphere is to be believed, Staples’s voice, “as authentic as it gets” (buzzine), could really save us all in these tough times. Come to think of it, the fervor of (white) faith in “authentic” black music shouldn’t be that surprising either, given the way in which race has always been entangled with popular music history in the United States.
Authenticity and the immediacy of experience it implies, have had a long history in the music industry—especially in reference to black artists—stemming back at least to the Fisk Jubilee Singers in the 1870s, an all-black acapella troupe celebrated for powerful live performances whose breakthrough concert also happened to be for a crowd of hipsters: the wealthy congregants of Henry Ward Beecher’s Brooklyn church in 1871. Beecher gave the band his enthusiastic support, namely because he felt their sound gave listeners direct access to “the inner lives of slave hearts expressed in music” even after slavery had formally ended.
While the sound of You are Not Alone differs greatly from the Jubilee Singers, the reviews of the record belie and inflame a similar desire for unmediated access to the emotive qualities (a)historically associated with black life and sound in the U.S.: namely suffering, faith, and catharsis. And Staples’s record is indeed not alone in this. Many of the sentences from the Staples reviews could easily have been lifted from those of another recent gospel record to capture the indie imagination, Daptone Records’s 2008 release Como Now. Starkly different from the breezier, countrified sounds of You Are Not Alone, Como Now is an acapella gospel recording made in a small town in Panola County, Mississippi. The record was a risky release for Daptone, a Brooklyn-based label that has consistently produced new funk and soul records since its inception in 2002 by the likes of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings and The Budos Band. Although old school sound has always been a part of the label’s ethos—its engineers use primarily analog equipment, for example, a major reason Amy Winehouse recorded her throwback Back in Black album at Daptone studios in 2006—marketing stripped-down gospel to its audience of predominately white hipsters would nonetheless prove a daunting task. Treating Como Now as a labor of love and a paying of dues, Daptone attempted to spark interest in the release by relying on the familiar marketing strategies of immediacy, authenticity, and nostalgia.
While Como Now’s tagline boldly proclaims that the music was “Recorded Live at Mt. Mariah Church on July 22, 2006”—and, thus, emphasizing the Now of the title—the cover’s vintage civil-rights era design evokes the Como of yesterday, or more accurately, encourages listeners to hear Como now and Como yesterday as one and the same through the vehicle of “raw gospel testimony.” Como Now’s depiction of the sounds of the past as echoes within the present is as ambiguous as it is uncanny, a sonic window thrown open to simpler times happening somewhere out there, “deep in the heart of Mississippi” right now.
The introductory promotional video from Como Now’s website (also uploaded on Youtube) represents the record as an aural time machine to a land and a people isolated from and largely unchanged by technology, modernity, and history.
Producer Michael Reilly’s voiceover locates rawness, emotional release, and “real religion” in the sound of black voices, in no small part because the video places his measured Yankee pacing in sonic tension with the song that accompanies it, Mary Moore singing “When the Gates Swing Open.” Over Moore’s impassioned singing, Reilly assures listeners in a muted deadpan that they will hear “no pretty piano playing or clever guitar picking, just voices. Pure soul stirring fire from the heart.” Reilly’s sentiments not only evoke the gushing Jubilee Singers’ press, but also the ethos of the infamous folklorist John Lomax, who made field recordings in Southern prisons in the 1930s because he sought “negro singers untainted by white musical conventions” (as he wrote in 1934’s “Sinful Songs of the Southern Negro”); singers in Como were actually recorded by John’s son Alan in the 1940s. Reilly’s voiceover goes on to frame the Como singers as practitioners of what the senior Lomax called “the real art of simplicity,” as stripped-down, natural singers who are artful mainly in their artlessness. While Reilly’s webcopy mentions how “children and grown folks alike have been living and breathing gospel for as long as they can remember,” for example, he fails to mention how the residents of Como have also been writing, rehearsing, and performing it.
Thus, Como Now’s marketing disavows the real artistry of the Como singers, even as it seeks to celebrate it. The simple, natural quality endowed to the singers of Como is visually accentuated by stark imagery representing the town as a down-at-the-heels, living museum of the black life of yesteryear. In the youtube clip, Moore’s soaring and spirited singing animates stills of blooming cotton fields, vintage RCA microphones, and splintering upright pianos. Save for the album cover and one blurry still of a child, there are no shots of the people of Como in the introductory promo, effectively isolating Moore’s voice from her corporeal and historical body. This isolation allows listeners to supply their own fantastic imagery and forces them to rely on historical stereotypes about the naturally sonic qualities of black people. By choosing to disembody Como’s voices, the promotional video represents the album’s music as emanating from, and even haunting, Panola County’s lush green fields and battered strip-malls rather than showing it to be a hard-fought creation of the residents themselves. To quote Lomax again: “[The Negro’s] songs burst from him, when in his own environment, as naturally as those of a bird amid its native trees.”
Although the impulse to make the album reflects a progressive desire to respectfully pay tribute to the black gospel tradition in American popular music—and to provide quality artists like The Como Mamas with critical renown and monetary compensation—Como Now relies on well-worn racial tropes to do so. It also points to the continued presence in American culture of an essentialized “black voice” that is naturalized as more emotive, truthful, and soulful than other voices. While this phenomena is socially constructed and the sounds thought of as “black” have shifted considerably—when I play early recordings of the Jubilee Singers my students consistently tell me that they sound “white” like a “glee club”—I find it fascinating that the language used to describe them has largely remained the same. While Como Now’s producer at least acknowledges that, in Como, “no one has to pick up cotton anymore, thankfully,” the marketing trades on the possibility that, while slavery and sharecropping have ended, its sonic labors have not only endured, but are readily available for download.