One for the ladies, and for all of us

Originally written for NoDepression

So much has been happening lately, I haven’t been entirely sure where to start.

First, the GOP political race that’s happening writ large right now (a field comprised solely of – shocker! – rich white men) started talking about women’s reproductive health issues as if they had some kind of expertise on the matter. Of course, that was amplified by a president passing a somewhat historical compromise which stated all women should have access to contraception, religious entities shouldn’t have to pay for it, and insurance companies can’t deny it. This seems to piss off everyone except the women who will actually be affected by the compromise. That has nothing to do with music (except that women who make music wander the earth in bodies which require access to healthcare).

Then fellow music writer Jewly Hight shared an article on Twitter titled “How not to write about female musicians: A handy guide.” I wanted to comment on that.

Then Whitney Houston died.

Then the Grammy Awards happened, and I tuned in to see Etta James barely remembered (outside of a beautiful acoustic duet tribute – which seemed less-than-scripted – by Alicia Keys and Bonnie Raitt).

Then there was the part where Chris Brown performed on a Q-Bert platform before winning a Grammy for his latest album, before performing again later in the show. For those of you who don’t know who Chris Brown is, he’s a giant pop star. He’s also a man who beat the everloving crap out of his wickedly talented girlfriend Rihanna (also a giant pop star) on the way to a party not too long ago. A Grammy party, as coincidence would have it.

Then Ann Powers (NPR) tweeted today that Rihanna and Brown are reportedly releasing a duet together. Cue debate/discussion via 140 characters or less by all of Powers’ followers about what we can possibly do, say, or think about that.

Where all this connects is. . .really, what the hell is wrong with us, dear world?

I want to talk about Whitney for a minute, because more than just being a pop star, she was an incredible artist. Someone tweeted at me to the effect that Whitney deserves no attention or respect in Americana circles, which is ridiculous of course.

Far from the pop music of this year, which autotunes imperfections, Whitney’s voice in its heyday was one of utter authenticity. She didn’t need a backing band or any production, backup dancers, theatricals. Whitney Houston’s most stunning moments as a performer saw her standing alone behind a fixed microphone, standing more or less in place the whole time, just singing every stirring emotion into songs which had been waiting to be unleashed. To disrespect that level of extraordinary expertise and artistry is to display no clear understanding for what it takes to sing at all.

Making music, even for those who seem to be born with talent, is not an effortless thing. It’s not a magical explosion of glitter out of the unicorn hearts of magic people which makes music resonate with a broad audience. It’s the result of muscular strength and dexterity, paired with a sort of hyper-sensitivity to the world around you. It’s a strange amalgam of skills and instincts which must be honed, to which great care and delicate attention must be paid. People spend their lives trying to find the way to strike a note on an instrument which will do what artists like Whitney Houston were able to do with some breath and the shaping of her mouth.

But I digress. In the wake of her death, we’ve been hearing “I Will Always Love You” over and over. Certainly Jennifer Hudson delivered a beautiful rendition of that on the Grammys. But, for me, Whitney’s most characteristic recording will always be “The Greatest Love of All.”

If you’re of a certain age – and probably especially if you’re female – chances are you listened to that song a million times, memorizing the words, taking it to heart. It was a song which taught us little girls about confidence and integrity and self-respect. Probably the most important line Whitney Houston ever sung was contained in that song: “No matter what they take from me, they can’t take away my dignity.”

Think about that for a moment.

(And check the final note on this performance, the way her voice covers about five different tones and feelings without moving a hair from the note’s central strength – totally embodying the statement “…find your strength in love.” I mean,damn.)

Anyhow, thanks to another tweet (this one from RollingStone.com Editor Evie Nagy), my attention turned to this Rolling Stone cover story on Whitney Houston from 1993, just after The Bodyguard was released. Anthony DeCurtis made the trek to her home in New Jersey to talk with Whitney about that film, its soundtrack, her perspective on her own career and fame. It was kind of a turning point in Whitney’s career, because she’d recently married Bobby Brown and given birth to her first and only child Bobbi. One thing in that article struck me in particular.

At one point, she’s talking about the culture of “bitches and hos” which was so prevalent in early ’90s hiphop. You know, those songs kids like Chris Brown grew up listening to, idolizing. Whitney notes that this objectification of women bothers her, but she also could see the bigger picture.

Decurtis: What about the portrayal of women in a lot of rap?

Houston: I think that sometimes it’s a little overdone. Women sometimes are portrayed as . . . playthings. But then again, I think women play into it. You see a lot of videos that have women as bodies, with bathing suits on, just running around. I don’t think women are made to do anything they don’t want to do. Women have a clear choice. That’s the way I was raised. My mother always said to me: “If you want to be respected, then act with respect. If you don’t, then you’ll be disrespected.” If you walk around and flaunt your ass in front of guys’ faces, then that’s what they’re gonna think you are. And don’t be surprised if somebody says, “Hey, gimme some of that ass.’

She had a point. Before anyone jumps, her point was the opposite of claims some have made in the past week that, say, women in combat should expect to be raped by their male counterparts. It’s the opposite of insinuating that Chris Brown was somehow a victim and applauding him for making an arguably listenable album after beating up his girlfriend.

But, like I said to Powers via Twitter, art is not about the artist and neither is abuse about the abuser. Art is both a reflection of society and a challenge to it. When art becomes only about the commodity – the money that can be made by selling a duet between a violent man and the woman he attacked – you’re treading dangerous water.

I don’t know why Rihanna would want to record with Brown. Maybe for the same reason battered women around the world return to the assholes who beat them? Maybe the same reason women in America would support political candidates who seek to restrict them from the right to make choices about their own reproductive systems, or who tell them to make the best of a bad situation by having the baby when a rape leads to a pregnancy?

I don’t know what this has to do with Americana music in specific, but all of this is part of all of this. None of these things exist in a vacuum. Unless or until we address the parts of our world where we – each of us – look the other way while women are categorically treated like debatable ideas instead of intelligent humans, it will continue. From the GOP field to male critics championing female guitarists for “playing like the guys”, to the stripping of dignity, to forgetting great women altogether, to battered women being asked to collaborate with their abusers.

It seems to me we have a problem here, and it’s not a pop music or entertainment problem. It’s not even an addiction or abuse problem. It’s not even Chris Brown’s problem. Yes, all of those things need to be addressed.

But this all brings me back, I think – however clumsily – to my statement above about the importance of recognizing what it takes to be a great singer. . .maybe most importantly, it takes recognizing one has a voice at all.

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