Whitney Houston was and is still regarded as “The Voice” by many. Her vocal stylings and gift have influenced many a singer for generations. Throughout her career, Houston soared as the global pop star that music executive Clive Davis always envisioned. But since her death, many factors have been discussed pertaining to if Houston was genuinely able to live her authentic self. Another global superstar, Mariah Carey, is breaking her silence on her friend, saying she was forced to be somebody she indeed wasn’t.
Life began to change for a young Whitney Houston in 1983. At 19 years old, the New Jersey native signed a recording contract with Arista Records. Clive Davis, the head of the label at the time, had a vision for this young singer with chops rivaling many gospel singers. You see, Whitney Houston came from an already iconic family of incredible vocalists. Her mother is gospel singer Cissy Houston. Legendary singer Dionne Warwick is Houston’s first cousin. And because of the family’s extensive work with other artists, she was always up close and personal with legends like Aretha Franklin.
But instead of the rousing soulful records that would have perhaps been expected from this insane voice from Whitney Houston, the world was exposed to a very pop-filled album. Her self-titled debut album was released in February of 1985 to positive reviews from critics. The R&B-flavored “You Give Good Love” was released as the first single with the intention of securing a solid fanbase with Black listeners. But that single soon crossed over, helping to slowly propel her debut album toward mainstream audiences.
The album may have been an impressive debut for many, but a lot of the African American community felt differently. Sure, hits like “Saving All My Love For You,” “The Greatest Love Of All,” and “How Will I Know” was included in the project. But fans felt Whitney Houston was being marketed more toward white America, alienating Black audiences. Whitney Houston would soon feel the sting when she was twice booed at the Soul Train Music Awards for two consecutive years. Then, according to her mother’s account in her 2013 memoir, some audience members began to chant “White-ey” instead of her name.
Whitney Houston herself spoke about being booed in an interview captured in the Showtime documentary, “Whitney, Can I Be Me.” Transcribed by NPR, she stated, ” Sometimes it gets down to if you’re not black enough for them, you know, or you’re not R&B enough.” In the same documentary, former executive Kenneth Reynolds confessed that any material presented to them for Whitney Houston that sounded too Black would immediately be “sent back to the studio.”
Whitney Houston spoke about the criticism during an MTV interview in 1985. The singer said about her influences like Aretha Franklin and responded to critics who issued that her gift was too good for “pop cliches.””I did not go into the studio wanting to make a pop album,” the Grammy Award-winning singer confessed. “I went into the studio wanting to make good music.”
Since her death, along with the many documentaries and books that have taken a deep dive into Houston’s life, many have surmised that if she could’ve only been herself, she’d still be here. Fellow legend Mariah Carey spoke about her friend recently and her inability for her to authentically live. According to Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston was unique because she was “very real,” without a fake bone in her body. In addition, the “Always Be My Baby” singer expressed the plight of artists during that time being molded into something, or someone, they weren’t, as she could also relate.
Carey expressed her belief that Whitney Houston was “steered” in a direction that the record label felt would be more “profitable.” But ultimately, the singer notes that Houston was able to keep the “effervescence” and genuine character. “She was a real person with actual feelings where they tried to make her just this, you know, glossy image,” said Mariah Carey.