21
Oct 09

WHITNEY HOUSTON – “Saving All My Love For You”

FT + Popular104 comments • 6,054 views

#561, 14th December 1985, video

The chiming, soft-focus keyboards that open “Saving All My Love For You” suggest late-night romance, low lights and the chink of glasses. This is a bluff and a lie: “Saving” isn’t a song about romance, it’s a song about pain and anger, and how its singer copes with and channels those. On its – pretty obscure – original recording, by Marilyn McCoo, the arrangement is richer and McCoo sounds rueful but warm, almost good-humoured. She’s calculated the angles as much as her married lover has, and knows that what she has is the least worst option: it’s a compromised sort-of happiness, but it’ll have to do.

“It’ll have to do” is not a concept the Whitney version recognises. This “Saving” smarts with the unfairness of the situation, the shock of crushed expectations. The winsome sax-and-keys arrangements (so bland, to be honest, that their bluff goes too far and spoils the record) are a taunt for Whitney: this isn’t a slow dance, it’s a bad deal, and she’s on the end of it. Houston isn’t at her best on sweet songs – harshness and force have always been weapons available to her and on “Saving” they come out at just the right time: “To-NIGHT, Is the NIGHT. For feeling al-RIGHT.” – you can almost hear the cutlery slamming down on the table as she lays it, ready for him to walk in the door. In McCoo’s version, the man-and-mistress arrangement is stable. In Houston’s you feel something’s going to give, not tonight, no, but soon – and it won’t be pretty when it happens.

It’s a great performance, and an important single. Because of all the versions of pop we’ve seen in 1985 – good, bad, old-fashioned, cheap or ugly – this is one of the most enduring: the glamorous young soul diva with the colossal voice. It’s the kind of pop stardom which turned out much later to transfer best to reality TV, but the astonishing success of Whitney and her successors means we’ll see plenty of it before that. So it’s good that we’re meeting the style at close to its best. The schlocky arrangement of “Saving” hides a fine, moving song, and the scale of Whitney Houston’s performance shouldn’t obscure how much conflict and nuance she puts into it.

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Comments

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  1. 31
    Lex on 22 Oct 2009 #

    #19 – the reason I’m suspicious of the “they’re just displaying their technique” dismissive line is that I’ve seen it applied unthinkingly so often – to any melismatic display of chops – even where, for me (and presumably many other people), the showboating is crucial to the song. To take an un-bunnied example, Mariah Carey’s “Emotions” – her showboating runs and adventures in her whistle register are absolutely indicative of the giddy joy she feels. (And yes, she’s showing off too! The two are not mutually exclusive. And indeed, when you’ve got your man and he makes you thrilled and happy, showing off is a perfectly natural response.)

  2. 32
    taDOW on 22 Oct 2009 #

    i’ve always seen the antimelisma line as just a blatant lovechild of rockism and corny indie fuxxors w/ some deepseated unease at the open expression of emotion uncloaked in irony lurking at the root of it. mariah (in her prime – let’s say thru butterfly) left me cold at least 50% of the time (though when it didn’t – ‘vision of love’, ‘i’ll be there’, ‘fantasy’ come to mind immediately – WOW) and her technique always seemed so much more strained than whitney’s, which even when unleashed (cf. ‘i have nothing’) seemed so relatively effortless while still powerful, esp in comparison to her imitators. anyhow disregarding whitney vs. mariah (and i’m all whitney though my preference is more just enjoying snappy bitch over giddy puppy)(stones > beatles also) or the pop vs. indie debate of ‘is it a good thing or a bad thing if the singer of a song actually knows how to sing?’, this song marks (arguably) the first definite appearance of the formula that would dominate (stateside at least) the number one spot for the rest of the century and lingers still – adult contemporary + r&b. r&b (esp of the buppie crossover quiet storm unto babyface type like this) suffers general critical neglect but nowhere near the level of adult contemporary which has been pretty much completely ignored (i’m not sure i can think of five crit pieces to really seriously deal w/ ac pro or con), despite having had a bigger place in the culture (in the us at least) over the past 25 years than for example rock music (nevermind indie rock music) – why is that?

  3. 33
    swanstep on 22 Oct 2009 #

    Whitney doing SAMLFY in 1985 on Letterman is here, if anyone’s interested.

  4. 34
    taDOW on 22 Oct 2009 #

    “DYNASTY styling!”

  5. 35
    Jonathan Bogart on 22 Oct 2009 #

    The sleeve looks like late-period Verve to me. Definitely a Billie Holiday/Sarah Vaughan vibe to it, although by the 80s surely classic soul was accruing the same patina of respectability: a ghost of some Dionne Warwick or Diana Ross image lingers on the edge of my memory too.

    Anyway. Whitney was one of the first times I can remember when “I don’t like this” entered my vocabulary in regards to pop music. The formation of a (tentative, easily-swayed) taste, in other words … but this won’t be for some years yet and is surely bunny-embargoed. Here’s hoping for a splendid row when we reach it.

  6. 36
    Mark M on 22 Oct 2009 #

    31/32: while the anti-melisma line has indeed been spouted by a lot of knuckleheaded rockists and whimpering schmindie-ists, it’s also been expressed, hopefully in a more nuanced way, by plenty of people steeped in the work of Al Green, Stevie Wonder, Aretha etc… It’s all very well saying it came from gospel, but few of the many, many church-raised singer pre-the mid 80s went in for that extremity of vocal mannerism (isn’t there actually a substantial jazz element to this?)

    (Not to be Lex-baiting or anything, but the high-pitched noises on a lot of Mariah records remind me of nothing so much as the feedback on early Jesus And Mary Chain singles).

  7. 37
    Mark M on 22 Oct 2009 #

    Oh, and I like Saving All My Love – probably Whitney’s best song before the first comeback.

  8. 38
    punctum on 22 Oct 2009 #

    Sinkah #24 – Sheila Jordan recorded just the one album for Blue Note in ’62 but what an album: Portrait Of Sheila. Barry Galbraith, Steve Swallow, Denzil Best – absolute magic.

  9. 39
    Tom on 22 Oct 2009 #

    #15 Lil Star reminds me of Suicide Is Painless as much as Cheryl! I think I’m pretty bad at spotting similar melodies, I get distracted by timbre too much.

  10. 40
    koganbot on 22 Oct 2009 #

    #10: Whitney no relation to Thelma as far as I know.

    #15: Gerry Goffin had six number ones in the U.S. prior to this, but none in the U.K. as far as I know. Impressively, “The Loco-Motion” hit number 2 twice with two different singers in the U.K.

    Initially I only heard this song out of the far corner of one of my ears, and never gave it any thought until reading Tom’s write-up just now, but I’m very impressed. She mostly lets the lyrics take care of themselves, and this works very well for them and the performance. The frustration doesn’t lose any power for not being especially underlined (though Tom is right about how “To-NIGHT, Is the NIGHT. For feeling al-RIGHT” works in context).

    #32 I prefer Stones to Beatles too but I absolutely love Emotions– and MTV Unplugged-era Mariah (completely bunny-free, unfortunately). Mariah’s leaping atop a thousand skies and a thousand clouds and kicking everyone and everything else off of them, and hurrah for her. I hear it as total excitement and emotion, though not in service to the emotions and not nailed-down particularly to the emotions of the words, which are there and deliver their emotions very powerfully, being strong words, but are only a small part of the story.

  11. 41

    Hit and run as have a tone to do today

    per mark @36, not so much jazz-toned as metal-toned? This was the era of Eddie Van H and Steve Vai and Joey Satriani, guitatarists with college-trained chops so far beyond punk, indie or alt-rock chops that they essentially lived in difft universes of affect and value — I dare say, even if Whitney cares little for axe heroes, that any critical distaste for this level of technique had evolved in the long war on hair metal

    if i had to express a generalised preference, i prefer soul and R&B post whitney-mariah (exceptions = wonder and JB); i don’t dislike aretha and al et al but i never play them except for research purposes — i think “in service to the song” is the issue; i like that there are performers — in this sometimes quite stratified area of the industry (as in “davis was moulding houston”), where producers and song-writers are very present and dominant, who make a kick of fvcking with the protocols — it renders the structure visible and makes this rendering part of the art (= mariah is my nu-pop mclaren)

    Whitney is Cissy Houston’s daughter, I believe

  12. 42

    a TON to do! brrrm brrrm *and off*

  13. 43
    Tim on 22 Oct 2009 #

    Haha it seems to me the cover has a great deal in common with early-period Sisters of Mercy, with additional use of the left/right align button.

  14. 44

    Scarper! It’s the Gothfynder General!

  15. 45
    will on 22 Oct 2009 #

    This was far too boring and adult for my 16 year old ears.

    That said, I rather liked the follow up, How Will I Know? (Though of course I never admitted it at the time.)

  16. 46
    Lex on 22 Oct 2009 #

    32 – absolutely agree, and the “open, irony-free display of emotion” is key, I think; and especially so when on such public, glitzy display.

    Am going to c/p a pertinent thing that Tim F said on ILX (comparing Mariah Carey and Liz Fraser):

    A lot of the argument for Fraser and against Carey seems ultimately to be rooted in a mistrust of emotional expressions that seem rooted in “universalist” mass culture. The attraction of Fraser is her idiosyncracy, her near-inimitability – this suggests a world of private, singular and perhaps inarticulable emotions. For some listeners I’m sure this would shore up their sense of individuality: “Fraser speaks to and for me because I am suspicious of “standard” emotional responses.”

    Whereas Carey, who is nearly as singular, nonetheless belongs to a more popular and populist tradition, and is imitated by young singers everywhere. To really like Carey I think you first have to be open (consciously or otherwise) to the possibility of sharing some emotional responses in common with “everybody else”.

    The point about young singers imitating the Careys and Houstons of this world is crucial – I’ve interviewed so many singers who grew up around them and Mariah in particular is a HUGE role model (even if a lot of these singers ended up finding their own voice and not sounding anything like her). The critical distrust of this (and mockery w/r/t X Factor wannabes influenced by her) is, I think, very rooted in its extreme girliness, too. Young girls hear a voice like Mariah and want to sing like her in the same way that they might want to be a princess or have a fairytale ending – and the male-dominated critical establishment is most dismissive of anything that codes teenage/tween girls.

  17. 47
    Matthew H on 22 Oct 2009 #

    Apart from fancying her like hell, I wasn’t hugely sold on this at the time – but I’ve just played it now and enjoyed it. I wonder if I’m in my -ahem- mid-30s now?

    This has that ultra-smooth, belongs-in-an-episode-of-Moonlighting jazzy style. There’s a place for it all.

  18. 48
    Lex on 22 Oct 2009 #

    I must say I am VERY DISAPPOINTED in the wrong-headed Focus Group reviews of “My Love Is Your Love” in Related Articles here…so much wrong with them all.

  19. 49
    Mark M on 22 Oct 2009 #

    Re 46: much prefer Mariah to Liz F, still hate the mini-Mariahs on talent shows.

    Re 48: seconded.

  20. 50
    Erithian on 22 Oct 2009 #

    Lex at #13 is spot on re what we learn about the Houston character – it’s hard to imagine an attractive, confident woman like that (and I’m talking about the character, not necessarily Whitney) settling for second best and scraps when she could presumably grab a man of her own without too much trouble, but the portrayal is well drawn.

    Agree with Tom that something’s going to give soon, but the line that seals the deal for me is not “toNIGHT is the NIGHT” – irresistibly sexy though it is – but “you said be patient, just wait a little longer / but THAT’s just an OLD fantasy” with the beats emphasising the crucial message to the guy and Whitney forcing out every syllable and stuff the vocal technique!

    (Interesting to note from Wiki that the screenplay to “Fatal Attraction” was written in 1985 and taken round a few studios before the hit movie was made – something in the air obviously…)

    A fabulous record and a great chart debut. We’ll no doubt talk about the vocal technique again when her later hits come up, but although I’m a bit of a rockist myself I think I’ll be more tolerant of THAT song than many…

  21. 51
    pink champale on 22 Oct 2009 #

    i dunno, i quite like THAT song myself, and i certainly like this one. i’m not sure the arrangement still codes sophistication like it once did, but it lends the whole things i woozy, intimate atmosphere that in some weird way reminds me of “the man with the child in his eyes”. and whitney’s singing is terrific throughout

    despite actually using the phrase ‘x factor mariah wannabe’ in another thread, i pretty much agree with lex’s take on the kneejerk anti tecnique-ers (which is basically just a variation of ‘style over substance’ nonsense) and i like the idea of why mariah appeals to young girls so much – “impossible princess” as someone once has it. that said, this sort of singing tends to be a style that has to be done really well (which, on x factor, it usually isn’t) before i like it, as opposed to something like haughty bored whitegirl style, which has to be done really badly before i don’t like it.

  22. 52
    LondonLee on 22 Oct 2009 #

    #46 I don’t think it’s girliness that people object to so much as cheap showboating that wrings titanic, paint-peeling emotion out of songs that are often trite.

    The boys do it too, though I can’t name one that has the pipes of a Whitney or Mariah. I remember seeing Usher singing with Luther Vandross on TV and he was really straining for effect, dragging out every line as if it was a matter of life and death. Then Luther opened his mouth and blew him off the stage without breaking a sweat.

  23. 53
    Rory on 22 Oct 2009 #

    The arrival of Whitney Houston in these charts feels every bit as significant as Madonna’s, with the roster of female pop legends of the ’80s almost complete. That doesn’t mean I am or was a particular fan – her later hits were too over-the-top for me – but revisiting this has been an eye-opener. I never really noticed that it was an adultery song, which tells me that I never really paid attention to the lyrics, or at least to that crucial first verse, and never saw the video. Easy enough to explain the latter: when this was hitting big in Britain, my family and I were driving around the Cotswolds and Lincolnshire, staying in B&B rooms without TVs in them (I can only remember a couple of B&Bs in all of that trip where we did get a TV in our room, and one of those was on a 50p meter), so to me this is a radio hit. Maybe it’s fortunate that I didn’t notice the adultery theme, for the sake of those long family car journeys and my teenage embarrassment levels.

    Houston’s pipes certainly sweep away the competition, but does her voice alone make this a good song? Those horrible ’80s keyboards threaten to condemn it to the schlock category to which Christgau and others consigned her. But Houston’s performance is pitched pretty much perfectly, and the song is really only undermined by that keyboard sound; if it weren’t I could see my middle-aged self loving this unreservedly.

    I keep wanting to back off from 7’s or 8’s when I have no desire to own the song, but for me this has a definite something that’s missing in many of my 6’s, and I was prepared to overlook the ’80s production of “Careless Whisper”, so I’ll agree with Tom’s 7.

    Number one in Australia for two weeks, by the way, in February 1986, just before Feargal Sharkey and just after Starship’s “We Built This City”.

  24. 54
    Tom on 22 Oct 2009 #

    Wringing titanic emotion out of something trite? Cor, welcome to Pop!

  25. 55
    LondonLee on 22 Oct 2009 #

    True. Maybe it’s the singers themselves that are trite. Some mere slip of a girl (or boy!) coming over all Mahalia Jackson strikes me as a little, I don’t know, out of balance?

  26. 56
    Tom on 22 Oct 2009 #

    I do know what you’re getting at, actually, it was a bit of a cheap shot. :) I do think it’s best to think about the bad examples of the hyperdiva style as just that – something that can work but can also go wrong, just as attempts to rock out can result in Jet as easily as AC/DC. Digging into why the good ones work and the bad ones don’t is the fun part.

  27. 57
    Rory on 22 Oct 2009 #

    A bit like those child prodigies doing maths PhDs at Oxford, isn’t it. Yes, yes, very clever, BUT YOU’RE TWELVE.

    On the other hand: Juliet was 13. GET A GRIP, GIRL, YOU’LL GROW OUT OF IT.

  28. 58
    Jeremy on 22 Oct 2009 #

    Am I allowed to say the mixing desk in that studio is like a Vogon fleet?

  29. 59
    pink champale on 22 Oct 2009 #

    #57 ah, but isn’t maths, like pop music, pretty much the only field of endeavour where it’s thought to be suprising if you’re still any good after the age of thirty? (er, probably also sport and that). it all makes sense.

  30. 60
    LondonLee on 22 Oct 2009 #

    Of course living in America I’m regularly treated to the spectacle of singers turning ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ into a showcase for the most ridiculous vocal acrobatics at sporting events which seems to be the most unseemly time to put the focus on yourself rather than the song. The Simpsons did a brilliant parody of that but I’ve been unable to find it online.

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