LOUD WOMEN: Portraits of disruptive women in American pop (Part 2)

Dear Riffs, Beats & Codas readers: I am drafting a new writing project called LOUD Women: Portraits of disruptive women in American pop. For many years, I have been drawn to female vocalists who are perceived as shrill, over-the-top and overly dramatic. I decided to interrogate the meaning of this notion in a series of vignettes. Please enjoy Part 2! I would love your feedback on this work-in-progress. Check out last month's blog for Part 1's discussion of Barbra Streisand, Cleo Laine, and Diane Schuur.


1968's  Eli & the Thirteenth Confession  is one of Nyro's earliest masterpieces.

1968's Eli & the Thirteenth Confession is one of Nyro's earliest masterpieces.

When I started listening to singer-songwriter Laura Nyro in college I began with her cover album of ‘50s doo-wop and ’60 soul music with LaBelle 1971’s Gonna Take a Miracle. I was so enchanted that I bought her first three albums of original material immediately afterward.  Her urgent, wailing sound felt like something I had been craving for years without realizing it. Sadly, around the time I started immersing myself in her serpentine melodies and impressionistic lyrics, she died. At the very least, some trickles of recognition emerged including Time and Love, a tribute to Nyro featuring an array of female admirers, was released with her blessing, and a double disc compilation. Though many people know songs like “Stoney End,” “Time and Love,” and “Stone Soul Picnic,” most people I knew were unfamiliar with her as an artist.

The music industry and critical establishment tend to spotlight a few artists to represent certain genres, and for female singer-songwriters Joni Mitchell emerged as the quintessential singer-songwriter, for achieving both acclaim and commercial success. They applied the same lens to Carole King and Carly Simon, but Nyro is the least commercially successful of all of them even if she is the most original. She was also the most controversial. Nyro has a piercing, full-bodied singing style that many people hear as overwhelming and shrill. Some critics have extended this interpretation of her sound to her music, which has been viewed as pretentious and self-serious.

 Critics are not the primary variable shaping the popularity of singers, but they are tastemakers whose voices partially shaped the late 1960s and informs rock histories and canon making venues like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  Nyro finally received a biography in 2002 via Michele Kort’s excellent Soul Picnic, many of her more obscure albums have been remastered and re-released, in 2012 the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted her (finally), and jazz-pianist Billy Childs released 2014’s well-regarded album of Nyro songs Map to the Treasure which won a Vocal Jazz Grammy.

 Despite these accolades, Nyro remains a kind of shadow figure; it is painful that her only “hit” as an artist was a moderately popular cover of Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s “Up on the Roof.” Granted, it is a lovely version, but it hardly tells her story. The Mitchell of the 1960s sings in a delicate soprano borrowed from singers like Mary Travers and Judy Collins that is instantly recognizable as a young feminine folk voice. Nyro has a heartier and more seasoned voice that sounds more overtly “white ethnic” but it is hard to place. She borrows more devices and phrasings from R&B but there is something dark, gothic, and sensual about her voice that is not purely traditional soul music but is far tougher and streetwise than folk. I frequently joke with my friends that I have never put Nyro songs on a mix with other singers because when I listen to her I only want to listen to her because for me she constitutes her own genre. Barbra Streisand’s most successful entrée into modern pop was her 1971 hit cover of Nyro’s “Stoney End.” Besides being born Jewish women (Nyro was part Jewish) in New York (Nyro is from the Bronx, Streisand is from Brooklyn), they have few similarities, but critically they are innovative voices whose distinctions from their predecessors was a source of acclaim and disdain.

Just as Streisand was not a Doris Day clone, Nyro was not a compliant polite folkie. She was willing to write about, sex, drugs, mortality, and urban life unfiltered. There is something jarring and disruptive about Nyro, especially if one grew up listening to the polite and highly polished pop music of the early to mid-1960s, like Connie Francis, Joanie Somers, and Andy Williams Vocally she is fearless, unfettered and somewhat wild in her approach to melody and dynamics. As such she is incredibly freeing to listen to; she disrupts almost any conventional notion of pop singing and the unorthodox shape of her songs matches. 1967’s More Than a New Discovery stands out, but Eli and the Thirteenth Confession and New York Tendaberry push her into even more dynamic and unpredictable vocal twists. Hers is a wholly original sound that needed to be heard. Beyond the sonic qualities were the stories she told about female emotional intimacy and sensuality, and her broader philosophical observations evident on songs like “Poverty Train” and “Time and Love.”  She made it OK for female songwriters to write in code, just as Dylan did years earlier, and like Dylan, she had an unconventional sense of sound and structure. Whereas Dylan’s innovations grabbed attention relatively early in his career, Nyro remains a thrilling discovery.


Jennifer Holliday singing live in concert.

Jennifer Holliday singing live in concert.

In a 1998 appearance on The Rosie O’Donnell Show Tony Award winning actor Jennifer Holliday relayed how Ethel Merman told her she would have to tone down her voice to make it on Broadway. The irony of Merman telling another singer to sing more subtly is fairly ridiculous, but Holliday did not object overtly, she simply stayed true to the dynamic style she introduced to audiences Your Arm’s too Short to Box with God which propelled her to award-winning stardom as Effie White in Dreamgirls on Broadway. Her signature “And I Am Telling you I’m Not Going” is more than a torch song: it is a gut wrenching inferno. Singing in an almost guttural style, Holliday sang the song four years in a row and solidified herself as one of the greatest finds in musical theater since Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, Bernadette Peters, and Stephanie Mills. In addition to receiving the Tony Award, she won a Grammy for the pop version, which exposed people without access to Broadway to a vocal style unmatched in intensity. Holliday’s bravura performance of the song, as well as “I Am Changing,” drew from the stylistic well of gospel, musical theatre, and torch song, and ultimately made her one of the decade’s most promising new star. Poised for success she never reached the heights of previous Broadway-cum-pop star predecessors.

 In the early 1980s, the music industry was as racially bifurcated as it had ever been with black singers confined to quiet storm ballads and funk and whites to soft rock and rock with few overlaps. The notion of a “black Streisand” was less than tenable, so rather than relying on Broadway material her Geffen debut featured a mix of relative “radio friendly” songs like the ballad “I Am Love” (an R&B hit) and the dance cut “Just Let Me Wait.” Her follow-up repeated this approach of targeting the neo-disco and adult soul markets. Unlike white Broadway predecessors like Streisand, Holliday needed to cross over from the black market to reach the pop audience and none of her songs performed at this level commercially. Holliday switched from Geffen Records to Arista Records in the early 1990s, but this did not change her fortunes significantly and she has remained a mostly independent recording artist. Sunset Boulevard’s aging, delusional fading silent film actress Norma Desmond believed she was not a successful actress because “the pictures got smaller,” rather than her talents. In Holliday’s case, the situation was the inverse: At the peak of her talents the industry got smaller, increasing the gap between black and white music, and reducing the space for singers with large voices to fit into an increasingly electronic musical landscape. The rise of MTV also increased racial segregation and a byproduct was the erasure and silencing of full-sized black female physiques like Holliday’s body. Though black women’s musicality was integral to the soul music that influenced ‘80s MTV pop stars like Annie Lennox and George Michael few black women had a prominent role on the channel.

Holliday’s talents were too big for the industry; she defied the industry’s emerging new standards and outside of Broadway found limited success in film, television or other arenas during the mid-to-late 1980s. Holliday has reflected on her struggles with weight, depression, and romance. I would imagine the failure of the industry to respond to the scope of her talents may have informed these struggles. In the mid-1990s, Holliday began appearing on television, including a recurring role on Ally McBeal, and in the early 2000s, she was back on Broadway and the dance charts. She has also released albums of gospel songs and standards, and benefited from some of the renewed attention to Dreamgirls that accompanied the 2007 film. These moments indicate clear awareness of her gifts within the industry, but she deserves a sustainable vehicle for her art.  In 2002, I saw her perform in concert in Washington D.C. and was awed by her talent, which included fine performances of the songs of Patsy Cline and Ella Fitzgerald, respectively, as well as her signature showtunes. Holliday, who was only born in 1960, still appears to be performing at her peak, and deserves to be seen and heard.


A still photo from Whitney Houston's performance in  The Bodyguard .

A still photo from Whitney Houston's performance in The Bodyguard.

Whitney Houston is one of the most misunderstood pop music icons because our society provided limited space for someone in her position to be understood. As a young black woman who debuted in the mid-1980s, audiences probably expected her to sing funk in the vein of Chaka Khan and Teena Marie, and/or gospel inflected music like Aretha Franklin and Patti LaBelle. Though hardly rebellious, Houston defied these racial and gender expectations. Houston’s energetic performances of dance tunes and sultry ballad interpretations indicated a vast aural sensibility. You hear elements of gospel in her voice, but there are also elements of Streisand style belting, Ross like drama, with traces of funk and disco, but ultimately no surrender to a singular sound. Houston does not sound stereotypically “white” or “black.” She sounds multiculturally black, meaning she is grounded in some familiar black idioms and able to illustrate how rich the palette of black music is in actuality.

Tellingly, before her album debuted she sang a version of Home on The Merv Griffin Show. Stephanie Mills originated “Home” in the original production of The Wiz and part of its innovation was its fusion of gospel elements with the control and showmanship of Broadway. The Broadway soul element is a deeply important texture of Houston’s music that a lot of music critics, steeped rock and soul music, miss and fail to appreciate in Houston’s music. Though reviewers always recognized the beauty of her voice, they have always fought the idea that black singers have something more to offer than the most obvious variations on the sound popularized by Franklin. This limits the room for other kinds of black vocal expression, thus by her second album (1987’s Whitney) Houston was maligned critically for making crossover pop (for white people) rather than some notion of  “authentic” black music. The only way such a notion is tenable is if you hold the essentialist view that black expression is finite and exhausted of possibility.

The notion that she was failing her people aesthetically, and by virtue politically, undoubtedly led her to record the rather muddled and unsatisfying album I’m Your Baby Tonight. In an effort to connect more deeply with urban black pop she collaborated with the urban L.A. funk brain trust of Babyface and L.A. Reid on multiple songs. The New Jack Swing title track was a big pop and R&B hit, but none of the other dance cuts made an impact. The album’s most successful cut was its most Houston-traditional: Her rendition of Dean Pitchford and Michael Gore’s anthemic “All the Man that I Need” produced by Narada Michael Walden, a black producer who shepherded most of her biggest hits previously.  Even working with Luther Vandross and Stevie Wonder failed to produce magic. The set is a downturn in her career, but she reversed her fortune with the most natural fit: the soundtrack to the soapy melodrama The Bodyguard.  After years of occasional acting cameos and a career of Broadway soul style singing the film’s music provided an appropriate context for her singing, which reached astronomical vocal heights on her propulsive version of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” and suitably dramatic original songs “Run to You” and “I Have Nothing.” The album’s triumph featured some of her best singing, and set the stage for her similarly accomplished performances on the Waiting to Exhale and Preacher’s Wife soundtracks. Paralleling these triumphs were well-covered personal struggles in her marriage to Bobby Brown and drug addiction that derailed her career transforming her from a formidable voice to a caricature.

1998’s My Love is Your Love, her last great recording, was an agreeable fusion of  her “classic” Broadway soul approach with more contemporary rhythms provided by hip-hop and R&B producers. Her voice was slightly more seasoned and her range was smaller but she still had an appealing sound. The album was her last consistent success, spawning several hits and winning her awards and such, but it was a swan song in many regards. She finally achieved R&B credibility, for what it was worth, but she had already shown herself to be both within and beyond R&B confines.

Critics ultimately have limited access to a singer’s psyche and personal demons. Arguably, the pressure to balance commercial crossover ambitions and to appeal to black audiences was an artificial pressure she inherited and navigated gracefully for many years before it seems to have consumed her. We still struggle to envision female artists beyond the cartoonish “girl next door” and” bad girl” tropes which can leave female artists stranded between being themselves and trying to acquiesce to expectations. Music critics are not responsible for Houston’s death but the faux binaries they employed did not honor her artistic life.


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Mariah Carey has always stood apart musically and professionally from most female pop singer-songwriters of her generation, yet critics constantly try to frame her in generic diva terms which diminishes her accomplishments. In 1990, when Carey debuted, videogenic singers with modest voices, like Paula Abdul, Janet Jackson, and Madonna, defined mainstream pop.  The primary exception was Whitney Houston whose powerful belting fused dulcet tones with gospel fervor on songs ranging from the fluff of “How Will I Know” to the rafter rattling angst of “Didn’t We Almost Have it All.” In between these extremes were solid singers like Taylor Dayne, Gloria Estefan, Karyn White, and Vanessa Williams, who also had slices of the commercial pop diva pie.

Though some parallels existed between Carey and these singers, including the emphasis on either dance-pop or romantic ballads in her repertory, she stood apart. Her voice had a top range that exceeded even the pop coloratura flights of Minnie Riperton and Deniece Williams. Her technique, particularly her command of melisma conveyed an authority to her songs that bellied her age. The fact that Carey co-wrote and arranged her songs, was atypical, as was her production credit on the album’s most unique cut, “Vanishing” featuring just voice and piano. “Prisoner” which featured Carey rapping verses to a faithless lover, years before hip-hop soul queens like Mary J. Blige and Lauryn Hill premiered was also a key track buried within the album. In short, she seemed like another diva but a closer look revealed a wider range of colors to her musicality. After her debut grabbed critics’ attention, sold well and won her awards a backlash ensued with her follow-up Emotions. Featuring dance pop co-produced with Cole & Clivilés (the architects of C+C Music Factory) and ballads with a 1960s soul flair, she became a critical target. Suddenly, she was accused of being bombastic, writing “schoolgirl” diary lyrics, and being the result of marketing hype. Her 1992 appearance on MTV Unplugged surprised many people who witnessed her live vocal mettle and had to concede that she was an excellent singer and commanding performer, not a studio concoction. The performance was released as an EP on the strength of her excellent interpretation of the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There” featuring call and response vocals from Trey Lorenz. This incredibly tender song could sink into saccharine mush in the wrong hands, or collapse under the weight of over singing, but she and Lorenz honor the original while singing with their own flair. I can think of no comparable singer who could have done this better. 1993’s Music Box found her garnering praise for employing her sensuous lower range more prominently, but some critics balked at generic lyrics, while others felt she downplayed her usual dynamism too much allowing the melodies to carry the day too prominently.

Three years and four albums in her critical profile remained confusing. She was either too over the top or not dynamic enough, and though she persisted in writing, producing and arranging her material and demonstrated genuine interpretive skill, she remained framed as a product of marketing. Her 1993 marriage to Sony’s CEO probably did not help with these perceptions. Critics also faulted her for being inaccessible and seemed poised to unmask her when her first tour began with an underwhelming performance in Miami. Carey was apparently a quick study, for her remaining dates impressed critics with her vocal poise and personable stage presence.

1994’s Merry Christmas elicited predictably mixed responses but the rousing closer “Jesus Oh What Wonderful Child” was a gospel masterpiece and “All I Want for Christmas is You” became an instant holiday standard. Carey’s turning point was 1995’s Daydream where she fused a range of musical interests in romantic pop ballads, ‘70s soul, 90s hip-hop, disco, and funk into a mini-masterpiece. She modernized her sound and image and won over new listeners, including critics, with an irresistible fusion of pop and urban music, a path she has pursued successfully since, most notable on 1997’s Butterfly, 2005’s The Emancipation of Mimi and 2008’s E=MC2. Because the press has turned its attention to her physical appearance, relationships, and alleged diva behavior younger audiences mistakenly view her as a quirky celebrity diva. Her best music is some of the most accomplished and influential pop music of the last 30 years. Carey’s career is uneven in spots, but she is a distinctive vocal artist not merely a generic diva.



Getting Away…Letting Go…Gone: Reflecting on Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston

Though Michael Jackson passed way in 2009 and Whitney Houston in 2012 their record companies continue to market their catalogs. In 2014 Epic released Xscape, a compilation of previously recorded but unreleased material. It spawned the hit “Love never felt so good” and lot of controversy from members of the Jackson Family. After releasing a Houston compilation in 2012 Sony/BMG released Whitney Live: Her Greatest Performances in 2014. They continue to intrigue audiences in death as in life.

Thriller  cover Copyright  © 1982, 2001 MJJ Productions/Epic.  Whitney Houston  cover Copyright ©  1985, 2010, RCA/JIVE label group.

Thriller cover Copyright ©1982, 2001 MJJ Productions/Epic. Whitney Houston cover Copyright© 1985, 2010, RCA/JIVE label group.

Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson share reputations and roles as the most iconic black singers of the 1980s. As such they epitomized the longstanding black “crossover” dream better than any other black singers of the rock era. Or rather, as we learned from their tragic premature deaths they embodied the nightmarish side of the dream to the extreme.

 Even compared to commercial heavyweights like Stevie Wonder or Diana Ross, who achieved immense success as pop-soul artists, Houston and Jackson gave up more. In the ‘70s Wonder and Ross still had to make it with black audiences first before crossing over. But Jackson and Houston reached a point much earlier in their careers where they started with the general/white/pop audience and did not need to “crossover.” They had already arrived. White audiences, and global audiences, embraced them as eagerly as blacks—maybe more so.

 In morphing from black acts with presumed “specialized” urban appeal/ethnic resonance (and other industry euphemisms) they mutated into distant commodified versions of themselves. Jackson was a prodigy who became a promising, awkward teenager who grew into a handsome independent young man before becoming a human commodity with Thriller. The fragile tenderness on Off the Wall’s ballads (i.e. “She’s Out of My Life”), the recurring escape themes on its dance cuts (“Burn this Disco Out”), especially the title track gave him away, in retrospect. The leap from his sappy middle-of-the road (MOR) solo albums at Motown to Off the Wall’s layered expressions hinted at reservoirs of suppressed emotion within Jackson.

 As ear candy these songs are expert pop craft. As tell-tale signs of something impending in his psyche and career they are frighteningly prescient. Thriller is almost exclusively an opportunity for Jackson to escape into meaningless accessibility tinged with paranoia (“Billie Jean,” “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’”). Content is not so much the message as feeling; like the milk you drink to cool hot foods Thriller was a rich, sweet, creamy balm that could never cool the sting of Jackson’s life in the long-term. Its beginning was his (the real MJ) end as opposed to “His” (MJ global superstar/King of Pop). The kinds of social, psychological, and emotional developments young men usually traverse from childhood to young adulthood were already complicated (stifled?) when he went into making Off, and Thriller cemented their stagnation.

 Because the American popular culture industry was not built for or by blacks, black artists always struggle to get in. Once “in” they know what they have left behind (safety, comfort, empathy, cultural understanding from the black “niche” audience), they are often daunted by what they want to see (fame, success, acceptance), and what could be seen by cautious eyes (second-guessing, rejection, contempt). Fame has not proven itself as an antidote to racial pandering as figures as disparate as boxer Jack Johnson, athlete/actor O.J. Simpson, former Ms. America Vanessa Williams, and golfer Tiger Woods experienced at different phases of their careers.

 Though Houston lacked Jackson’s adolescent commercial pedigree she was a young woman when Arista record exec and producer Clive Davis shepherded her into pop heaven. Even her mother Cissy’s experience as a renowned background singer and minor R&B star could not prepare her for the platform she reached with her immense vocal talents. Davis’s “hit” single mentality was broad enough for her to crossover but too narrow to really “get” who Whitney was and what she might face. This is where Farah Jasmine Griffin’s classic book If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery is crucial. Her book localizes the sources of Billie Holiday’s pain and elusiveness. There’s something we cannot know (hence Mystery) because there was something Holiday was trying to protect (not hide). Drugs helped her establish this distance; the same was tragically true of Houston in many respects.

 Beneath the studio gloss, the elegant phrasing, and the entertaining if often prosaic songs lies something raw and unarticulated that usually gets condensed into a broader emotional field of pop feeling. Yet this is unsatisfying because Houston was not easy to reach or understand despite her apparent commercial accessibility. Beyond the hits was someone unseen; one who betrayed the obvious sentiments of her attractive but unchallenging music. Who knows how she would have developed differently if her fame came when she was more seasoned? This is where 1990’s mediocre album I’m Your Baby Tonight is crucial. In wanting to make Houston seem “blacker” (via hiring New Jack producers like Babyface, L.A. Reid and Daryl Simmons) her record company essentially rejected who she was to win the black audience’s favor. As such she descended publicly into a black urban tale fit for Maury Povich: Erratic behavior, a loutish husband, self-destructive behavior, drug abuse, and unidentified angst. What she wanted—acceptance? understanding?  fame? catharsis?—killed her. Drug use is never passive, but the gradual erosion of self occurs at slower speeds and lower frequencies.


My first thought with both of these singers is always to wonder when their biological families and black audience “families” had to let them go, hence the essay’s title. Our families, however flawed, usually know us best because they are intimate witnesses of our becoming. Jackson’s proximity to his parents and his siblings is both a testament to family support (usually rare for artists) and an understandable motivation for him to become more independent artistically and personally. Since he remained affiliated with The Jacksons (musical group) into the early ‘80s it’s not clear when his family’s respect for his solo pursuits drifted toward concern. And if his audience thought he was growing increasingly strange in the mid-80s during the acme of Thriller his family surely noticed.

 Similarly, the symbolic grounding the black audience offered performers grew increasingly strained as the black managers, mom and pop record stores, chitlin’ circuit venues, and black radio formats that created the black music sub-industry, and fostered affinities between performers and their audiences crumbled under the weight of change. Music critic Nelson George’s 1989 book The Death of Rhythm & Blues chronicles this especially well. Record company consolidation, MTV etc. all widened the gaps. While Jackson has understandably attained loyalists from multiple cultures black culture is still his root. It was not until the early 1990s when he was accused of child molestation that black audiences reasserted their support for him. And this was reignited in the early 2000s when he accused record exec Tommy Mottola and Sony Music of racism prior to the launch of 2001’s Invincible.

Between Thriller and his death there were multiple lulls in the black audience’s interest in Jackson the musician.  By the rise of New Jack and hip-hop in the late ‘80s he was catching up with the black audience’s taste rather than leading it. The child star that emerged as icon incarnate for black kids around the world grew into a distant relative black people cared for but had lost touch with.

 Houston’s mother Cissy wisely waited until Houston reached a certain level of maturity to let her record for Arista Records, and years of “wood shedding” occurred under Davis’s tutelage. Her commercial success and stable image marked her as a responsible and competent person publicly. No one would have suspected she needed her family to intervene too much after her first two blockbuster albums in 1985 and 1987. Davis guided her career closely for years but in the early ‘90s, around the time she married Bobby Brown, Davis’s grip started slipping. The once unreachable star suddenly appeared more vulnerable (i.e. weird behavior, missed gigs) but in the most clichéd of ways. Rumors about drug use, her troubled marriage, and diva-like behavior overshadowed her music. The once unstoppable force was grounded by tawdry scandal. By the 2000s all of her recorded output began to be viewed (or rather labeled) as “comebacks” rather than records. Her personal life overshadowed her music and black audiences ate up the drama but not necessarily the music. They reveled in the tabloid shenanigans but still wanted her to be OK. A woman once viewed suspiciously as a pop princess whose “blackness” was under question was reunited with her root audience in her darkest hour. But the gaps grew so wide that by the end it’s not clear if anyone knew what to do with her or how to handle her struggles.

 Labeling talented, affluent vocalists with agency as tragic “victims” is a misnomer. Houston and Jackson made choices that benefited them creatively and enabled them to amass huge fortunes. Beyond this material reality their deaths compel reflection because they always seemed to be reaching for something we’ll never quite know and slipped in the process. My guess is that their most dedicated listeners and fans will continue guessing what happened in that gap between their initial public life and their sudden deaths.