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Reflections on Whitney Houston

With her passing last Saturday, Whitney Houston has become a centre of attention in a variety of traditional and social media. Over the past week, it has become hard to avoid tributes, rumours, judgments, jokes that may be “too soon,” reminders of U.S. soldiers’ sacrifices that receive far less attention, and other things related to the story.

Most interesting to me are the tributes and acknowledgements that have come from a number of people associated with the “classical” realm. With Twitter as a starting point, I was amazed at all the Houston-related postings from singers, conductors, critics, and others who tend to centre around that category. This is one advantage of social media; you can trace cross-genre sympathies that would otherwise remain private, or even unknown. Just imagine if we had social media 35 years ago. What would Leonard Bernstein have tweeted when Elvis Presley died? We do know that he said this: Elvis is the greatest cultural force in the twentieth century. He introduced the beat to everything, music, language, clothes, it’s a whole new social revolution… the 60’s comes from it. (You’ve exceeded the character limit, Lenny!)

Of course, the separation between classical and popular music in 1977 was even more deeply ensconced than it is today. Still, we can’t really tell which tweets are just token acknowledgements related to the passing of a major musician associated with a different genre; we can only make guesses, possibly from a content analysis, but there has to be some motivation behind it. At the very least, perhaps it shows that classical musicians are not entirely out of touch with what’s happening in popular music; whether the courtesy is returned remains open for debate.

On Twitter, some such tributes have been relatively brief. Just to name the ones I know of, tweets about Houston have come from conductor Lorin Maazel, as well as opera singers Joyce DiDonato and Mark Doss. The Wagnerian pushed along an announcement from ABC News, while classical music fan and New York Philharmonic This Week host Alec Baldwin recalled hosting Saturday Night Live with her.

“Classical” blogs have also paid tribute, including A Liberal’s Libretto. Subscribers to music critic Norman Lebrecht’s Twitter account saw announcements for several postings about Houston on his blog Slipped Disc, including mention of her death; a clip of her with Luciano Pavarotti, Sting, and Elton John singing La donna è mobile from Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Rigoletto; another clip of her singing the night before her death; and an amusing clip of her with musician Serge Gainsbourg.

Among all the “classical” tributes I’ve found, none can match the evident degree of fondness for Houston, and sadness about her passing, conveyed by opera singer Danielle de Niese: the initial reaction, continued sense of loss a few days later, and memories of winning Young Talent Time with a rendition of two Houston songs. Interesting, too, is the response to the last one: Thanks for the update 🙂 BTW, great to know that opera stars also care about pop music. Cheers!

(And why not?)

Also in the media, some comparisons have been made between Houston and many of opera’s tragic heroines. NPR’s Anne Powers drew these out in general and more specifically, while James C. Taylor noted that a contemporaneous New York City Opera performance of Verdi’s La Traviata brought into relief the parallels between Houston and the “fallen woman” (courtesan) Violetta Valery. Taylor even goes so far as to suggest the possibility of an actual opera about Houston. (Don’t laugh; it’s already been done with Anna Nicole Smith.)

As for Houston’s genre associations… that’s a bit more challenging to pinpoint. While she may be diligently lodged into the popular realm, the user-generated entry for her on Wikipedia lists several different subgenres for her: pop, R&B, soul, dance, gospel. I haven’t had time to check YouTube, last.fm, and other social media sites to see if the same holds true for individual songs, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the ambiguities of her genre associations emerge even more prominently in those venues.

I won’t even get started on the word “diva,” which has been attached to Houston, along with singers of many genres. A look at definitions from Urban Dictionary, another social media site, should provide some insight. For what it’s worth, notice how they’re ranked in terms of overall levels of agreement and popularity.

I will close this posting with a “crossover” rendition of one of her hits: the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra performing Dolly Parton’s I Will Always Love You, which Houston covered for the 1992 film The Bodyguard (I could do without the perfunctory percussion beating time, which dampens the necessary tension and release, but it’s fine otherwise; oddly enough, it brings to mind the song’s affinities with Unchained Melody.) Admittedly, I got sick of hearing it all the time. The song seemed to be everywhere, and it struck me as overly dramatic and stylized for my tastes. For relief, I turned to such mild and unexaggerated fare as Wagner and Strauss.

Two decades later, with Houston’s untimely passing, I understand better.

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