Tag Archives: Whitney Houston

The queer afterlife of Whitney Houston

By Guest Contributor Pier Dominguez
It is perhaps a queer time to be writing about Whitney Houston. After all, she died over one year ago and the many memoirs and remembrances that trickled out since then–on television, magazines, newspapers and countless blog posts–have been replaced by fresher news in the celebrity gossip industrial complex. But nostalgia has its own rhythms.

It wasn’t until I saw Oprah Winfrey’s recent interview with Whitney’s mother about her memoir, in which she discussed Whitney’s relationship with Robyn Crawford that I thought about Whitney again. And it wasn’t until I heard James Blunt’s sad, poignant tribute to Whitney, “Miss America,” that the nostalgia led to more thinking.

I remembered that, at one time, I had been a pretty invested Whitney Houston fan. I wasn’t around for “How Will I Know” Whitney because I wasn’t old enough to follow pop music and she wasn’t a big star in Colombia—where I’m from–in those early stages. I missed her 80s pop princess moment, in which she brilliantly continued Diana Ross’ lineage of black feminine beauty and glamour and combined it with cheerfuly melodic Dionne Warwick-style pop music. She wasn’t part of my pop culture landscape either as the leather-jacketed, Babyface-produced, R&Bish “bad girl” of “I’m Your Baby Tonight.” My initial interest in Whitney came at the most obvious moment, during “The Bodyguard” era, when her worldwide celebrity was arguably as big as it would ever get, aided in part by the scandalous frisson of the heterosexual interracial pairing at the center of the film.

Before that, Whitney was perceived as having a perfectly prissy image in her shiny gowns. “There she is, Miss Black America,” images (1)Time magazine once exclaimed, and it was an image so overwhelming–such a model of racial achievement and gendered comportment–that even after Whitney’s death, Madonna said she envied her “innocence.” In truth, though she negotiated the public sphere differently than Madonna, she was always a liminal, contradictory figure.

From the start of her career she was accused of “selling out” and making pop music that was too “white.” The film pairing with Kevin Costner was part of that logic arguably. Her real-life pairing with Bobby Brown seemed to disrupt it, because he seemed too “black,” and some saw her wedding to the bad boy of R&B as a career move to appease less pop-oriented followers. According to Brown himself, it also seemed designed to manage other contradictions. Because it turned out her liminality was not only racial.

I had no idea then that there was a Robyn Crawford in Whitney’s orbit, always haunting her image, like some queer ghost. While Whitney was alive, every major profile of her, from Time magazine’s “Prom Queen of Soul,” to Vanity Fair’s “Thoroughly Modern Whitney,” would allude to the intense relationship between her and Robyn Crawford, which had started when they met at 16. It was brought up, often as a parenthetical aside, and left as an open question, denoting the relationship to connote queerness. Whitney would either deny it or say it wasn’t anyone’s business.

Black women’s sexuality is so often misread by mainstream culture as excessive and/or queer, that it’s arguably too easy to assume there is something beyond the eroticism of friendship going on between Oprah and Gayle or Whitney and Robyn. Yet after Whitney’s death, there were numerous non-punitive attempts to claim her as gay and contest the media’s representation of her persona. Peter Tatchell, a white gay LGBT activist writing for The Daily Mail, remembered meeting her with Crawford: “When I met them, it was obvious they were madly in love. Their intimacy and affection was so sweet and romantic. They held hands in the back of the car like teenage sweethearts. Clearly more than just friends, they were a gorgeous couple and so happy together.” Obvious. Clearly more than just friends. A desire for certainty.

In an evocative essay provocatively titled “The Widow,” black gay New Yorker critic Hilton Als remembered the early days of downloadRobyn Crawford in the Cubby Hole on Christopher Street, where they “knew” she was going out with Whitney. With obvious warmth he calls her “our” Whitney, a queer, black Whitney before she was swallowed up by the racial and sexual protocols of stardom: “Whitney Houston’s alternately powerful and bland resonance for us was not inseparable from our queerness.”

Evelyn C. White, author of a biography of Alice Walker—a powerful artist who never denied the queer complexities of black experience—wrote in the comments, “Thank you so much for this honest offering of true black love. You’ve said what those of us in the black lesbian community have known in our hearts — for decades.” Truth, race, love. Race and sexuality, knowledge and heart.

Robyn Crawford herself, in an as-told-to article that appeared in her “voice” in Esquire, finally said her piece/peace without any mention of romance. Towards the end of the article she says, “I have never spoken about her until now. And she knew I wouldn’t. She was a loyal friend, and she knew I was never going to be disloyal to her. I was never going to betray her.” Speaking, silence, loyalty, betrayal. Betrayal of what? Speaking about what knowledge? Why the silence? As Eve Sedgwick has taught us, sexuality and knowledge have always had a fraught, messy relationship.

Perhaps that is why, in the Oprah interview, Cissy Houston seemed so surprisingly candid in admitting that she didn’t “know” the exact nature of the friendship between her daughter and Crawford. Beyond friendship, she didn’t know. It was precisely her admission of not knowing which seemed so rich with possibilities, seemed to say so much and speak so loudly.

Many commentators focused on her homophobic outburst, when she said she wouldn’t have approved of queer Whitney. For some, queer Whitney means white Whitney. This prompted discussions of homophobia in “the black community” and a reconsideration of what had led to her downfall: it wasn’t “too black” Bobby Brown who had ruined Whitney, it was keeping her sexuality secret from her mother (and the world) that had done her in. Life is incredibly complex, and it seems like biographical reductionism, part of the need to make everything into a cohesive narrative, to claim Whitney’s problems all came from having to “hide her sexuality.”

Yet I understand the feelings of sadness and anger upon sensing that it had turned out to be “true” that there was a queer Whitney. I was saddened and it was an overwhelming feeling because of the totalizing way we are still made to think of sexuality, as if it’s a matter of true or false, black or white, all or nothing. That is part of the problem—though perhaps also the pleasure–of sexuality as we currently conceive it. It can create such an alienating wedge between oneself and someone, even while celebrity identification can feel so full and intimate. As James Blunt sings in his tribute, we thought we “knew” her through the bars of a song and her face on the silver screen.

Whitney’s queer afterlife divides her public once again: Whitney, we hardly knew you. Whitney, we knew you too well. What does it mean to “know” somebody? Why do we align sexuality and race with truth and knowledge? Whitney, who was such a big star, teaches us something in her afterlife. She teaches us about the size, color and emotional resonance of “sexuality.”

Now we have James Blunt’s white soul tribute to Whitney. Blunt has himself teased the public with “knowledge” about his sexuality, falsely “coming out” and later denying it. Gay or not, he has created an affecting, cross-racial, queer tribute to a diva—one as delicate and haunting as Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind” about Marilyn Monroe. He sings, in the melodious way she might have sang it, “No Goodbyes/You’ll always be Miss America.” But the resonance of that innocent pose will always strike everyone differently. Queer Whitney haunts us all.

‘It’s Not Right’… On Whitney Houston, Black Women, And Loss

By Guest Contributor Andreana Clay, cross-posted from QueerBlackFeminist

Like others, I can’t really believe that I’m writing about the death of Whitney Houston. I learned about her  death in passing, as I was preparing for a party. And I hadn’t thought about Houston in years, not since seeing her run and literally jump into Bobby Brown’s arms on one of his releases from jail years ago. It wasn’t until I sat down hours later, read some of the news stories and tributes, and started watching videos that a wave of memories and emotions came over me.

The first video I watched and then repeated over and over (until Joan finally said “stop watching Whitney Houston and come to bed”:) was “You Give Good Love” from her debut album, Whitney Houston, released in 1985. Watching it immediately took me back to junior high, 8th grade, when I effectively made the switch from tomboy to girly girl. The year that my mother said I could wear make up (no eyeliner) and let me start going to Boys and Girls Club dances with my best friend Angie, my cousin. Angie kind of looked like Whitney Houston, and both were part of my coming of age as a teenager (along with Sheila E., Lisa Lisa, and Prince). As I watched “You Give Good Love” over and over, I was reminded of that time, my relationship with my cousin, Black women, and loss.
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Whitney’s ‘Homegoing’ And The Spiritual Divide

By Guest Contributor Tami Winfrey Harris, cross-posted from What Tami Said

Media coverage of singer Whitney Houston’s funeral evoked a disappointment I often feel as a black woman in America. It reminded me that many elements of black culture are still viewed as exotic and, in some cases, disdained as such.

Houston’s funeral, but for being broadcast live and attended by celebrities, seemed unremarkable in the context of other black Baptist memorials I have witnessed. There was rousing gospel; truth-telling; passion; equal doses of laughing and crying, clapping and shouting; references to Jesus; moving sermons; a few long-winded eulogizers; some preening preachers on “thrones” in the pulpit; a sense of sorrow, but a greater sense of joy–celebration of life and of a soul “going home” and being released from earthly sorrows. This is not to say that all African Americans grieve the same way or grieve in a Baptist Christian way, but for most black viewers Houston’s service was not completely alien.

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Whitney: Victim Of The “Strong Black Woman” Stereotype

by Guest Contributor Keir Bristol

It was not inevitable for everyone that Whitney Houston was going to die. Many of us expected her to make a comeback. For those people, her death came as a shock. Many of the people who were not surprised by Houston’s death used her drug addiction as an excuse. As often as I hear that Houston was talented, I hear that she was a crack-head, or that she was Bobby Brown’s punching bag.

Television shows covering Whitney’s death focused most of their energy on her marriage to Bobby Brown and drug use. There was very little discussion of what her life was like before she was apparently using. Never mind that Whitney, as a Black woman, was a successful pop star while most other Black singers were automatically sifted into the R&B or Soul categories. There was barely any mention of an accident she had as a child that could have very well severely damaged her vocal cords, or any of the political and charitable works she had done, like her Welcome Home Heroes concert for the soldiers who had fought in the Persian War in 1991 or her support of Nelson Mandela.

Houston’s drug addiction and domestic violence issues devalue her as an artist and person to many. To these people, she is not categorized as an artist with a drug addiction, or even a human with a drug problem. She is categorized strictly as a drug addict like many Black female entertainers before her, Dorothy Dandridge and Billie Holiday included.

Why is Whitney given a bad name for being a drug addict, but people still idealize Kurt Cobain, Sid Vicious and John Lennon? Continue reading

Whitney: Why Does It Hurt So Bad

By Guest Contributor Aurin Squire, cross-posted from Six Perfections

I was in the middle of chairing a meeting. We were at break when someone rushed in and interrupted our separate conversations.

Whitney Houston is dead. 

She’s gone.

I wanted to cry. The meeting went on as if on autopilot. I went through the agenda and don’t even remember what I said.
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Voices: R.I.P. Whitney Houston (1963-2012)

She was a power house and a natural from the beginning, from the time I saw her in her mother’s act to the time I introduced her on the Merv Griffin show. You went to see the show and heard what they were doing abroad and you would hear Whitney Houston sing Home and it would send shivers through you.

This was an incredible natural, natural vocalist. She became more and more familiar in the studio. Michael Masser is a perfectionist, of all of the producers he was the perfectionist and every note and every sound — he was putting her through the paces of singing, so I’m sure she learned in the making of this album, it wasn’t that she knew how to record. She would just sing. I know on the front line, he very much was there, but he and I had become very good friends by that point. He played takes for me, rough cuts for me and I’d make some comments. She was always very willing, a workaholic. She would go back and do it and it wouldn’t be a problem.

- Arista Records producer Clive Davis, Gulf News

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