“Whitney Houston” Devising the Blueprint
How power, gender and race dominated the creation of Whitney Houston’s debut album
This blog is an edited undergraduate university paper I submitted as a major essay on gender and the history of popular music.
This paper researched the intersection of power, gender and race in the music industry — specifically with respect to the creative process behind Whitney Houston’s debut album Whitney Houston. Consideration is given to the historical context of the mid-1980s music industry and how the landmark success of Houston’s debut record was pivotal in establishing A&R practices that impacted subsequent female artists major label debut albums. The methodology applied to the topic blends a sociological approach with a cultural studies analysis of power, gender and race in mid-1980s America. The evidence was then applied to the process that record executive, Clive Davis and the artist, Whitney Houston, underwent in the creation of Houston’s debut album for Arista Records in 1983–85.
Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu connected capital and class with cultural and symbolic factors. Additional to economic capital he proposed that culture, lifestyle, social benefits, institutionalised networks, reputation and prestige were all required to ensure power and influence. The concept of ‘cultural capital’, is defined in Bourdieu and Johnson as knowledge and expertise and when manifested as power it can commodified (8). Van Krieken asserts that investing in cultural capital further heightens economic assets and power (214). Exercised through institutions power becomes political. Sociological perspectives, when applied to the music industry, highlight the economic, cultural and political power of the record labels and executives.
‘She Works Hard for the Money’ — The Music Industry in the 1980s
It is widely accepted that in the mid-1980s the record companies occupied the power centre of the music business (Reebee Garofalo 78) and the oppression and exploitation of women and African-Americans in the music industry had been consistent since the 1950s. (Chapple and Garofalo 218)(Carson et al.) With popularity artists themselves became commodities within profit-driven record companies (Chapple and Garofalo 219). The record industry, within the broader socio-political context of the USA, was entrenched in racism and misogyny (230). The absence of women as creators of pop music, rather than as the subject of songs, was a result of sexism — the systemic discrimination and denial of equal power to women. An A&R executive working for a major record company was the producer of content and the objective of signing new artists was driven by the “logic of capitalism and the pursuit of maximum profit” (Shuker 13). A&R executives and record producers were easily the “most important creative positions” (Chapple and Garofalo 290) within the industry. It was at this intersection of power, business and music making that Clive Davis operated.
By the mid-1990s Clive Davis was widely regarded as the most powerful man in the record industry and that without him many artists would be ’nothing’ (Odell). In 1986 The Guardian wrote “Twenty years as the most powerful man in the American record industry has done nothing to dampen Davis’s appetite for the kill” (Brown). An A&R colleague of Davis, Gerry Griffith, originally tipped Davis to go and see Houston perform and had chosen the record producer but Davis did not acknowledge this at the time (Fredric). When Davis first encountered Houston Arista was at a low ebb and not profitable (Fredric 249) and signing power was exclusively in Davis’ hands (Scoppa). The success of Houston earnt Davis the recognition as a ‘legendary record man’ and earnt him millions as her executive producer. (Fredric 246). Davis signed Houston in 1983 at 19 years of age and groomed her creatively (Knoedelseder).
Whitney Houston was from New Jersey, raised on gospel and had ‘star’ lineage, being related to Cissy Houston and Dionne Warwick. It was her father who took credit for her initial success and business decisions — an example of how little agency Houston had in her own career decisions and the accepted music industry norm that “women have not been taught to be business-savvy, and they have not been expected to construct an identity as a businessperson” (Carson et al. 137). Working as an actress and model, Houston performed covers and standards in nightclubs. As an example of how little creative agency Houston had at the time Davis recounts verbatim his lengthy letter of ‘critique’ of an early performance in his 2017 memoir (Davis and DeCurtis 312–315) and states “there was never any dialogue between us…Whitney absorbed everything and responded substantively” (315). After signing to Arista, Davis set about crafting her debut album.
The music industry recovered from a five year slump in 1983 on the back of Michael Jackson’s Thriller sparking a ‘solution’ to the industry’s economic woes through blockbuster selling LPs. Wells notes that by 1980 female solo artists could have the same level of success as men when performing “mainstream slow songs” (74). The crossover marketplace was ripe and it was common practice in record production in the 1980s that stereotypical forms geared music for maximum profit (Scherzinger 27) informing an arbitrary approach to the production of sound recordings. Davis adhered to an autocratic, interventionist approach as an Executive Producer maintaining the dominant paradigm of the label deciding ‘who the artist is ; what the artist should look like ; what the singles should be” (Carson et al. 140). Taking two years, and at a cost of US$300,000 Whitney Houston was released on Valentine’s Day 1985 and sold 20 million copies, the most successful selling debut album in history at that time.
“How Will I Know” — The Creative Process and Decision Making
The use of power and influence in the conquering of mainstream audiences was readily on display through the recording process and key visual representations of the music. The making of Whitney Houston was described by Billboard as the “pop equivalent of a De Mille extravaganza -epic and expensive” (Scoppa 1986). Scale like that cannot exist without power, money and influence. Davis himself writing an op-ed in Billboard “Whitney was a major event for our industry and for music itself” (Davis 1985). Such grandiose statements were expected as Davis was recognised as a record mogul whose expertise and passion was mainstream pop — he memorised formulas and structures for successful songs and insisted they be used (Scoppa). As the Executive Producer of Whitney Houston it is widely accepted that Davis made all the key artistic decisions and as an Arista colleague said at the time of release Houston was “a totally contrived artist” (Fredric 250). Davis is quoted as saying he “chose every song on the album, picked every producer, took over her entire career” (Fredric 251) (Potter).
Shelton writes that Houston’s debut solo album was produced “strategically to be a break out crossover album” (137). Decisions were made in the music-making process itself by white people to influence the appeal to crossover mainstream consumers. Houston’s debut was essentially written and produced by Narada Michael Walden, recognised as playing a “large role” in the breaking of Houston. (Lawson). “When you hear Whitney Houston’s ‘How Will I Know’ and “I Want to Dance with Somebody’, you’re listening to the work of Narada Michael Walden” (Mottola 200). The first single You Give Good Love was initially only promoted to black radio and as it moved up the charts promotional resources were committed to crossover to mainstream pop stations. This strategy was intentional and the third single How Will I Know was released simultaneously to pop and black stations (Fredric 251).
Conscious cross-over marketing of Houston through, not only the sound of the record, but the visual representation of the music signified the integration of white and Black America during the 1980s. Houston’s music videos, themselves blatant cross-over marketing tools, Davis exploited — having recognised that as singer, actress and a model at an early age Houston was made for music television (Garofalo and Waksman 192). The styling choices for cover artwork and music videos provoked “scepticism about her race and her authenticity because she does not resemble typical R&B singers, nor does she resemble the typical white popular singer” (Shelton 137). The amalgamation of cultural signifiers of “black voice and body and a white musical format and theatricality” (138) readily appealed to large audiences with even her name being declared “a pedigree … a Rolls Royce, a classic with superb lineage and a vast support staff to ensure no hitches are encountered” (Goddard 1986) . The unprecedented commercial success of Whitney Houston provided a powerful example to other record companies and executives, a guide for how to control the artistic process to duplicate the success, and profits.
“I Want It That Way” — Legacy of the Whitney A&R Blueprint
The process of creating and marketing Whitney Houston remains an important turning point in the record business — power, race and gender converged, establishing a blueprint for solo female artists debut records. In 1986 an Arista executive told Billboard there is “no question that labels are going to make a deeper commitment to black artists” and that “crossover is the name of the game”. (“Majors See Black Music Boom”) As Garafalo and Waksman acknowledge “given this kind of success, it is perhaps not all that surprising that the major labels stuck to their superstar marketing strategies”(231). Like Houston, Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson, Sade, Anita Baker further demonstrated the exploitation of race and gender to cross over to mass sales on debut records (Hunt). Other label executives actively capitalised on the cultural and economic power of the solo female artist debut record. A Columbia Records executive declared upon signing Mariah Carey “we don’t look at Mariah Carey as a dance-pop artist, we look at her as a franchise” (Garofalo and Waksman 231). Other parallels with Houston are when Tommy Mottola took control of Carey’s debut album as Executive Producer and enlisted many of the same producers, songwriters and musicians that worked on Whitney Houston. Further research could be undertaken on the longtail influence of this A&R ‘blueprint’ of creative process intersection with power, race and gender through the 1990’s to the present day.
In closing, it is also worth noting that the credit for Whitney Houston’s breakthrough success has consistently been given to Davis (Knoedelseder; Scoppa) with the exclusion of any influence, creativity or agency of the artist herself. This dominant narrative persists with Davis’ own increasingly controlled marketing of himself as the ‘last great music man’ and an artist friendly, grandfatherly patriarch of the modern music industry. (Davis and DeCurtis). With the tragic death of Houston in 2012, her ability to reflect or report any differently was lost to history.
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