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Did Whitney Houston's crossover fame cost her?

Tonya Pendleton | 2/14/2012, 5:33 p.m.
Whitney Houston was the opening act at the ”Concerts...
natl14a.jpg Don West

Black music fans felt that Houston’s pop success distanced her from the black community and criticized the singer for not following the black songbook of gospel-based RandB. While her celebrity gave her exalted status among African Americans in the way that basketball star Michael Jordan’s did, like Jordan, she was seen as an artist interested more in assimilation than race loyalty. At Arista, Davis’ imaging of Houston purposely detached her from her gritty urban roots, deleting any obvious black music traditions out of her albums. Davis wanted her to achieve more lucrative pop stardom, not just to line his own pockets, but to make her a superstar not defined by race.

Houston’s success was the evolution of what Diana Ross hoped to achieve: true superstardom that transcended her skin color and background. Both of Ross’ hit movies — 1972’s “Lady Sings the Blues” and 1975’s “Mahogany” — contained her within the black community as the love interest of then-popular black heartthrob Billy Dee Williams (the Denzel Washington of his day), and in “The Wiz,” she starred with an all black cast. Compare that to Houston’s hit movies.

While 1995’s “Waiting to Exhale” did surround her with black actors and actresses, her big box office hit was “The Bodyguard,” three years earlier, a movie in which she starred with Kevin Costner, then one of Hollywood’s biggest white stars.

“I Will Always Love You,” which broke chart records and became Houston’s signature song from the movie’s multiplatinum soundtrack, was originally a country release written by Dolly Parton.

Her aspirations — along with those of black America - lasted through the ‘80s, but the ‘90s came in on the winds of hip hop, changing the music and the mindset of black culture. Now, entrepreneurs were making millions off music that had its genesis in America’s inner cities and their graphic struggles.

Now, you needed street cred instead of bourgie connections. Even the long-held conservatism of HBCU’s adjusted in light of this new black America as college students began to shake off strictures of dress and behavior that had once been desired symbols of the upwardly mobile.

As technology joined this dramatic change in music, voices like Houston’s were no longer in the forefront. Auto-Tune and dominant production made it possible for someone who could carry a tune and look good to develop a career based on catchy, shrewdly packaged and promoted hits, not vocal prowess.

As black America found its inner-city blues, it became less interested in the status quo, instead looking to craft its own view of success based on entrepreneurship and savvy more than education and corporate achievement.

By the late ‘90s, personal turmoil derailed both Houston’s career — and her stellar voice. Drug abuse was suspected, then confirmed. As Houston’s life reflected the downside of celebrity and success, so did the world around her as a 24-hour news cycle, the Internet and the emergence of Facebook, Twitter and reality TV gave license to a the complete erosion of privacy.

As Houston’s voice diminished from the national scene she once dominated, so did the middle-class aspirations of black America. From the wealth of hip hop’s ascendancy in the ‘90s and 2000s came the reality that for most of the rest of the population, the stepping stones of black aspiration, like Houston’s voice, was being eroded. A persistent recession blocked access to the education and employment that generations of black folks looked to support their reach into the middle and upper middle class.