“Ours, my boy, is a high and lonely destiny.” As [Uncle Andrew] said this he sighed and looked so grave and noble and mysterious that for a second Digory really thought he was saying something rather fine.
As I gave Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” an easy ten on Tom’s Popular thread I’d probably better expand — as usual, other people’s comments help me think this through, especially when they’re subtly wrong in ways that nevertheless seem self-evidently right. I think Lex is right about the bludgeoning, for example, but not the bludgeonee: and I think wichita lineman is right about the unconvincingness, but entirely wrong about any insincerity. punctum is absolutely correct about the performance as an evasion; the deep question — impossible to answer, essential to explore — being how much of this effect is conscious, how much an unconscious matter of singer’s identification with role.
I’ve alread tied this into the aria in the film Diva: I haven’t the slightest idea whether that film was in Whitney’s head, still less anyone else on the production team, but I think it has useful explanatory value all the same. To prove this I’m going to triangulate it with (i) John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Plastic Ono Band LP (though haha the two Unfinished Music LPs also totally fit, just go look up their titles when you’ve finished reading this), and (ii) Queen Elizabeth the First of England and Scotland.
So, capsule Bodyguard synopsis: famous (black) singer has affair with (white) agency bodyguard; falls for him. From sense of professional duty, bodyguard ends it — angry singer acts up; finds self in overcomplicated mortal peril, involving jealous unhelpful sister, too many stalkers, and BORING HIJINKS ENSUE (it’s basically an interesting, timely concept — more in a moment- — wrecked by needless misdirection and KEVIN COSTNER). Diva, by contrast: a (white) fan (owner of the only ever tape of the never-recorded (black) opera singer of the title) achieves fantasy of a lovely day’s dalliance with his idol; there’s lots of engagingly flashy business with Parisian and Korean cartoon gangsters chasing him for the tape, and a decidely pervy multiple denouement, in which (among other things) the fan acknowledges his betrayal — recording a woman who repeatedly and publicly said no to all such offers — and makes restitution.
At the heart of both films, the impossibility of love between a royal and a commoner: the black/white element plays very differently in the US (where it was still kind unspokenly taboo) and Paris, where it has the urgency of sanctioned exotica — but in both contexts it’s a figure for potentially unresolveable complexity; a get-out clause, from the categorical imperatives of the romantic happy ending, if you like.
And both films play across the ten-12 years after the murder of John Lennon by a jilted, very genuine (which is to say insane) fan: the decade-plus when the institutionalised rejection of the implicit politics of 60s pop culture — we’re all in this together! — manifested as quasi-political assassination, of arguably its most political face/voice, albeit a face/voice in adamant retirement. This song — whether we take the hater’s reading or the admirer’s — is about the crushing of the pleasant possibility of sustainable dalliance between those of unequal status/attainment. The mechanism delivering this crushing is a rigorously achieved utterly regal monumentality — a monument as a vast, implacable, immoveable acknowledgement of the fact of divine right: a cat may not look long at a king; a commoner may not step out with — because can never comprehend — a blood-royal princess.
Now of course, Whitney — or rather the character she plays, in and out of the film at this point — is only in fact a princess by selection and election, despite the facts of her birth and upbringing (her mother the legendary gospel singer Cissy Houston; also Dionne Warwick’s cousin and Aretha’s god-daughter). Clive Davis signed her to his label (note the name) Arista: this was the election. And millions upon millions of pop fans loved her records more than records by others: this was the selection. Born into the 80s soul aristocracy, she is nevertheless not royalty at all — fast-tracked to the audition, she didn’t simply get a lineage pass through it. She’s a high-end pop-star (or was) by virtue of what she was able to do herself. And of course by virtue of what people believed she would go on to do…
The chart love song is always directed at the star’s lover and/or significant other: the audience. The 60s utopia — and Aretha and Dionne were as caught up in, albeit for different reasons, as ever John Lennon was — was a radical equivalency of its stars with its masses; its leaders with its footsoldiers. By 1970, Lennon was singing “I don’t believe in Beatles” and “The dream is over” and “I just believe in me, Yoko and me, and that’s reality” — attempting by superstar force radically to scale down his affect, to ordinary-guy freedom and intimate in-bed-together domesticity, shut away from the world and its ten million cameras.
Attempting — absurdly — and of course failing; failing catastophically; failing fatally. The door — opened in the imagination if not in the world — could not be closed, even if Lennon had actually really ever wanted it closed. Dumping and denigrating the Beatles, he was also dumping every one of his fans: and some clung to him all the more passionately for this, and some, maddened, spun off into eternal attack. He managed a brief semi-holiday, a brief househusband pseudo-anonymity — it seemed an age at the time, it was a little over four years — and then in December 1980 the door was forced violently open, forever.
The pall this cast, the social facts bursting through the utopia, was starting to deliver, by the turn of the 90s, a mushrooming of songs, from within the bubble of celebrity, exploring the pathology of celebrity — the pathology of the impossibility of finding equals. Post-punk discussion of pop had meanwhile become extraordinarily crappy at analysing any of this: it had moved from a necessary suspicion of the words and attitudes of the star (“imagine no possessions,” yeah, right, John) through a disdainful kneejerk mockery towards a literal inability to see or hear what was before you, if it emerged from this upper layer. The poster-child for this critical incompetence is the actual former poster-child of winsome 60s trans-racial possibility and escape from the prison of class, Michael Jackson, whose entry to the black pop aristocracy had been marked by a precocious harbinger of this mushrooming, 1982’s “Billie Jean” — by the 90s MJ was really singing about little else but the stupefying crippling diorientating terrifying isolation not just of fame and success, but of the ideals and idealism that genuine fans invested in them, on his up-by-his-twinkling-bootstraps behalf.
And of course, when it came time to find a partner, the only guide — in this unhappy world of manufactured royalty — was the dynastic manoeuvring and politicking of actual old-school royalty in the dying years of Divine Right: to cement who knows what imagined alliance, he married Lisa Marie Presley (if only the Lennon-Onos had had a daughter…) The best alliance a monarch can hope for is with peers — and that always means geopolitics first, helpmeet companionship maybe, possibly, a long long way behind. And we’ve finally reached (ii), and Shekhar Kapur’s 1998 film Elizabeth: Cate Blanchett, gradually self-zugwanged after all the masques and parties, into refusal (sometimes execution) of any would-be-consort, the acceptable continental dynasts all giggling idiots or creeps, the sexy risky local not-quite-royal boys all dunderheaded ambition-distortion: any choice will make matters worse, until — for the bitterest reasons of state — the only solution is no choice. In the closing scenes, scenes of grindingly dreadful (old meaning) awe-ful (old meaning) grandeur, Elizabeth self-imposes Jackson-esque mummy-like whiteface, to emerge as England’s Virgin Queen.
Not made for six years, this film can’t have been in anyone’s head: still, Elizabeth is the movie the song best illuminates, prefigures, matches. It’s a song about intense loneliness and devastated renunciation — it’s not, however, really a song at all about the renunciated. (Perhaps this is why it’s become popular at funerals? Those left behind are the ones who have to cope; the dead take care of the dead…) Reasons of state, divine right — these claims to pitiless duty, the necessities imposed from outside — are not available to pop-stars, of course, as pretexts or excuses or evasions. But what Whitney — and any character Whitney is playing — can call on, in the name of self-exculption, self-justification, self-protection, self-delusion, is her talent; her technique. This is what has shaped her life and set her apart; this has burdened her with duties and demands others simply don’t have.
All this last is here: the sense of regality, of dreadful awful majesty of style and skill as a weapon, the sense of renunciation, the sense that her role leaves her the loneliest person of all, that her suffering — thanks to her superior status, thanks to her superior gifts (the latter inevitably, in so ruthlessly meritocratic asocial niche, a figure for the former) — is monumentally vaster than anything you or I or even Kevin Costner might suffer. Of course there’s a sense in which this is a repellent, even (yes) onanistic belief: but WH (playing a role in a film, playing a role in a song) is not (after all) straightforwardly announcing her own political philosophy. It’s easy enough to denounce this as bad behaviour — it’s nothing but a shouty tantrum! — but this doesn’t even slightly make it a bad song or a bad performance; on the contrary, it admits what it purports to refuse, that the magnificent self-denying trolling exactness of the delivery of the character and the character’s self-view is precisely what conjures up such resistance, such seemingly inexplicable pervasive unexamined hate.
It’s in fact entirely appropriate that it’s vestigial, like the post-coital existential role of the male deep-sea angler fish (the female semi-absorbs its tiny mate after sex, so that the latter becomes a sad little nubbin on the former’s deep-sea arse). Any arrangement that threatened to matched Whitney for power or technique, or even expressive understanding of the situation, would offer a challenge to the concept of solo majesty. (Music, more than any other, even acting, is the collaborative art; the art that implicitly explores a local collective equality… ) Of course the actual real Whitney was — if not now, then soon — actually casting around for a less horribly tormenting and entrapped self-projection. 1992 is the year that Mary J. Blige arrived, to fashion a far looser, loucher, post-rap model of the soul diva, as a princess of glittering self-manufacture — and Whitney very surely wanted in on such freedoms from princely care, if we only judge by her subsequent real-life travails.
I don’t at all hear someone joyfully demolishing an inadequate suitor here, unleashing her great and terrible talent at his hopeless uselessness. First this doesn’t really fit the film’s logic at all — Costner after all dumps her — and second, the rigorous formalism of the performance strikes me as the opposite of joy, though I’ll acknowledge a certain nerveless sabre-tooth pleasure in supple-strength-for-its-own-sake. (Brief diversionary explication here: opera is a genre of similarly rigorous formalism, which many many many pop music-lovers are incapably allergic to and baffled by — and no one sane would claim joy is unachievable in opera: but it’s certainly never a consequence of snapshot method acting; the vehicle in opera of mood is the dance of the written harmonies and orchestration, the voice considered as a mastered tool inset within the work as a whole, as a cog in the form… ) (and yes, there is a contradiction here, it’s the basic tension within opera — that the achievement of expressed freedom within the work must be reached at cost of the freedom of its many parts, vocal or instrumental…) (Joseph Kerman wrote a great book about this: Opera as Drama.) I actually think, in his flippant threadpost, that Mr Mark G has most tidily identified the bludgeonee: “I’m off, and it’s not you it’s me. OK thx bye” — it’s a song of high-end, self-involved self-flagellation. The declared bludgeonee is the singer herself. And while Mark’s flippancy deliberately ignores the conscious point of the scale of the tone, I think he exactly hits on the head the distrust many will feel towards such a declaration, however dressed up it is.
To reiterate: everyone’s who’s using this as the explanation of their dislike is getting turned about, unconsciously recasting the reasons for their impulse to recoil, switching the poles of vulnerability, if you like. And they’re doing this because WH is also doing this; it’s no surprise at all she unleashes a flood of it in those who feel threatened and targeted (because they ARE being targeted). The extreme widespreadness of this reaction is a consequence of the song’s effectiveness, not a consequence of its flaws. It’s a reaction, certainly, against flaws in the singer’s persona’s worldview — monarchists (and monarchs) are wrong about what’s best for the world, and thus ultimately themselves — but a violently dislikeable character is not therefore a badly acted character, or a sign that the drama is ill-conceived (ffs). Anyway, this is NOT bombast, it’s POWER: not raw power, but frighteningly, almost inhumanly controlled power. Power from technique, of course — phenomenal technique — but power also from conscious awareness and deployment of the status this technique has conferred. Power that says I am something you can never be; so “us” shall never arrive… (but I-I-I will always etc…); noblesse oblige or onanistic delusion (maybe these are always the same thing), but what isn’t a delusion is the utter rejection and obliteration of a human-scale possibility, in the name of… well, gimme some truth, as a disenchanted utopian once said. And look, I love Dolly and so should you — she’s enormously shrewd and witty about the faux ordinary-person egalitarianism that structures country music’s ideology of itself, and many many MANY country songs old and new are PRECISELY about fissures in the supposed class continuum, albeit inflected personally, and personably, etc.
This critical call (based on oddly conventional assumption about what pop-songs can be about) is simply a mishearing of what’s being declared — which isn’t love at all, but its absurdity. Maybe the persona is telling herself that yes, she actually would be capable of a nice kind of love were she not a queen, in which case she’s fooling herself. Not to adduce it as an error anyone in the thread is making, of course but — just as “black/white” creates a fuzz of problematic excitement and blindness in Hollywood and among Parisian intellectuals — it’s not exactly a borderland where rockwriting has covered itself in perceptive glory, either. A character like Marilyn Manson, a group like Killing Joke, are allowed all kinds of leeway, in respect of books we imagine they’d sorta kinda read, high-end ideas they can plausibly be claimed to be playing with and around, despite exceedingly evident limitations as performers. The idea of intellectual content not only makes up for a lack of musical content: it’s sometimes actively deployed to drive it out. And true, yes, this is not an issue in all rockwriting, but after punk (with its apparent fatwa on the craft of music) it has very much threatened to become the mainstream default. Black performers like Whitney or Michael Jackson or — with more learned grasp of tradition and physical grace and capability in the tips of their fingers and toes and noses (well, OK, not necessarily noses) than any of those they’re ranged against, find this exact wealth of knowledge, understanding, craft and intelligence deployed against them; treated a badge of shame, a sign of — of all things — cultural ignorance and allegedly absence of any speck of adult agency. As if all that black pop — accused, all too often by the professional concern troll, of deserting its roots in soul, old-school R&B, jazz and so on — has ever really been fit to deliver is some ignorably smooth bourgeois adjunct to the happyclappy entertainment diversion dept.
The Intolerable; the Implacable; the Inhuman; duty as ineluctable force of destruction
We are indeed the territory of Joy Division… except where Curtis’s frailties as a person and deep limitations as a singer allow the ordinary unmusical listener a vicarious way into a dabbling feel for these concepts, Houston’s confusions (between her role as a star and the roles she undertakes as a performer, I guess) force us up against a reality; that communication is only sustainedly possible between equals, and that inequality exists. Perhaps unavoidably: small wonder many find it horrible, or some kind of blunder — it’s far more ruthless with utopian pop-culture pieties than anything on Factory ever was.
‘And now at last it comes. You will give me the Ring freely! In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!’