This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes back writer Gerrick Kennedy whose newest book is “Didn’t We Almost Have it All: In Defense of Whitney Houston.” Kennedy is also the author of “Parental Discretion is Advised: The Rise of N.W.A. and the Dawn of Gangsta Rap.” His writing has appeared in Vanity Fair, GQ, and The Los Angeles Times. Kennedy tells The Treatment that one of the misconceptions about Whitney Houston is that she didn’t have agency in creating her music and her image because of Clive Davis’ heavy influence. He says Houston was subjected to near constant and deeply invasive questioning about her personal life by a mostly white press in a way that few other celebrities have experienced. And he says he was deeply moved by her return to her gospel roots in the last years of her life.
The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.
KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the home edition. I'm Elvis Mitchell. My guest, Gerrick, D. Kennedy just wrote a terrific new book. It’s a personal essay and an incredible cultural history of the phenomenon of Black women in pop. The book is called, "Didn't We Almost Have it All: In Defense of Whitney Houston." There's a line in the book that I think could actually also have been the title. Whitney's mother said to her, “heart, mind and guts.” And the book is really about the battle between these three poles in her life, isn't it?
Gerrick Kennedy: Yeah, it is. So much of our misunderstanding of Whitney is really rooted in what we expected her to be and what we wanted her to be based off of the presentation that she gave to us. But also we know that that was a presentation that wasn't entirely hers. And we've spent so long really unpacking that. But within that are really those complications. You had this woman who had a foot in the church and always wanted to sing that way, but she had this gift that she wanted to share with the world, and that did require her to shift things about herself, change things about herself, be something that she entirely wasn't on her own. But she was doing it again for the greater good of what she wanted, which is to share her talent that God had given her.
KCRW: I can't think of another case where somebody has written so much subtextually about an era and used an artist to define that. You mentioned early in the book, the two other avatars in Black pop at the time were Prince and Michael Jackson, and they were constantly being defined one way or another and fighting the definition towards conventional sexuality and Blackness.
Kennedy: And also with those two artists, in particular and why they come up with so much is because we also see them as serious artists. That was a thing that we didn't quite extend to Whitney because she wasn't writing these lyrics. She wasn't producing these lyrics in the way that we traditionally know of production, even though I think, as a vocal producer, she was completely underrated and not given enough credit in that regard because she sang the songs how she wanted to sing them, and that is a level of producing on its own.
You think about the MTV era at the beginning and what Michael did for that, and what Whitney did for that and what Prince did for that, and Janet also. But no one studies Whitney's career, her music, her life, the way that we study Prince, the way that we study Michael, and there are so many incredible books about Prince and about Michael that get into the weeds of their artistry and get into the weeds of what they meant, culturally. There were none on Whitney. And that bothered me so much as somebody who loved her, but also somebody who respected what she did.
The influence that she carries goes from Brandy, who was generous enough to write the foreword, all the way to Ariana Grande and Adele. To have that level of influence for this long and no one taking the time to do any sort of cultural study of her I just thought was such a disservice to this phenomenal legacy. So many of us allowed that to continue because we were sad that she was gone. We were ashamed of how we treated her. We were really disappointed that she didn't overcome her demons in a particular way. And so I think that it all became this grief that just hung over us that we stopped celebrating her in a particular kind of way,
KCRW: You're bringing up Prince and MJ. Whitney was probably the last of her generation of performers who wasn't perceived to be the author of her own destiny. That wasn't true, but she was perceived as such. Anybody who listened to her and to those records, and to the songs, to not be able to offer the sense of authorship to her, just because she didn't have the conventional credits of songwriter or producer, now seems absurd.
Kennedy: Because she's gone, we've had so many other people talking about their experiences with her, which I think is great. But I would have loved to see a lot of that when she was here, where people are asking her, Hey, so, when you make the choice to sing in this phrasing in this particular way, where did you get that from? And there's some that did; there's lots of those interviews. But there's just the overall idea that because she wasn't writing and producing in this way that we understand it, that she was not in charge.
There was this thing, particularly within our community, the Black community, that because she came from the church, because she came from this lineage of the great Cissy Houston, which again, I wanted to also have a whole chapter just on her greatness, because I felt like for so long, too many people just think of Cissy as Whitney's mom. And yes, that's accurate, but I think because the surface idea of where she came from that was promoted early on, there was this idea that she should be singing a particular type of music. And so when it became these softer ballots that lean to the pop side, it was: well I don't understand why this person is singing this. Why aren't they doing more deep, deep, deep soul? Even though her first two albums before, there was a direct shift into: let's make harder R&B. There was still R&B on both those records. It's still rooted in R&B, so she never departed from any of that. She never departed from the ways in which she sang in the church, even when she was doing those pop records.
And I think that was also something that it took a long time for everybody to really connect with: the fact that she was really pushing a tradition of singing into mainstream pop music. And being the first means that yes, there are going to be people who don't understand it. And with that confusion becomes judgment, which we just know, that's human nature. I think about even something now we're seeing, you know, Kanye and Sunday Service, and just this moment of a lot of hip hop, a lot of R&B, a lot of country, a lot of other genres of music are calling back to gospel, and a lot of that is because of what Whitney did and what she introduced into the genre space.
KCRW: One of the things we can talk about here is that basically the penultimate verse of every song she performed, almost turned gospel. It was kind of incredible as she found the strength in each of these songs, this angel that was more than she could contain, will come out of her. And then she'd land the songs back down.
Kennedy: It goes back to Cissy. When you just go and listen to those old records of Cissy, when she was singing with her siblings, and with the Drinkard singers, what she was doing with Sweet Inspirations, what she was doing with Aretha, you hear the beginnings of that coming together. And I think so much about what it must have been like for Whitney at four and five and six years old, to be sitting in a studio, understanding that I have this voice, and I want to sing like my mom. And this is something I'm really, really, really liking right now. But you are watching your mom sing with Aretha Franklin. I mean, just the image of that on its own gives me chills. And I thought so much about what we learn through osmosis.
When we think about kids in the womb, just the level of education that was being lavished upon this young woman, this young girl. There was no other road for Whitney, other than being one of the greatest. If you have Dionne Warwick, and most of your family has these God given voices, and you're in the church singing a couple days a week, every single week, just the level of education that comes from that. And then also, the muscle that is being built, the training from Cissy of: this is how you control it, all that breath control. And that's why a song like "I will always Love You" is so powerful because we know that note, when that crescendo builds is going to knock us off our feet. We know the same way when she's doing the "Star Spangled Banner." We know when Whitney Houston does that song, what it's going to be toward the end.
It became so much of her identity as a vocal artist that I always worried as I was getting older and seeing the world and seeing how the world was treating her, the idea of the first time she's not going to be able to hit these notes, which happens to every singer, what are we going to do to her? And we did exactly that when those notes couldn't come in. We already had things to say. But then there was also the personal life and other things coming together. So that became part of the conversation for the second half of her life. And that always was frustrating because I thought what got lost in that was this other voice that came out, this mature voice that yes, some of it was aging, some of it was her own vices. Some of it was: we all knew that she was not somebody who really liked to continue to do vocal lessons and all the things that you need to continue to condition your voice. And so when she couldn't hit those notes in those particular ways the way she hit them in the early 90s, we just started to really tear her apart in a different kind of way. And that was always really sad to me.
KCRW: I was thinking about that one point when Clive Davis, her mentor and the man who signed her, invoked the names Holiday, Fitzgerald, Streisand and then Sinatra. In certainly a couple of those cases, those singers lost power. They develop the technique that basically stylizes the songs. But Whitney's style was to bring drama to intimacy. The songs that she's probably best known for, "I Will Always Love You" and "The Greatest Love of All" are really intimate songs that she turned into opera.
Kennedy: Yeah, but I think that the flip side of that though, later in life, is every time she sang, it felt like that offering at church. I might not be prepared; I might not be ready, but I want to sing because I want to praise, and I want to worship. And that's how she treated her songs. And I thought there was something really beautiful in that.
Singing was her passion. It brought her so much joy, but it was also how she was connected to God. So I really had to think about spirituality and what that meant to Whitney, and I think that also really helped me especially thinking of some of the last times we saw her. Some of the last times we saw her, what was she doing? She was singing for the Lord, right? Yes, it breaks my heart, but it also fills me with so much joy. Because she didn't care about our judgment. She was going to always show up and sing and give that offering of praise because she was here, and she was happy to be here and that's something that has always just stood at the front of my mind, but it's also so much of why I like a lot of those last albums that didn't get a lot of attention. I like this other voice that she had, this more mature voice. There was this raspiness to it. It has so much soul and so much spirit. And I thought there was something really, really gorgeous about that.
KCRW: Those last couple records, she was starting to develop that technique that we were talking about, but that's not what people wanted from her when they saw her live. They were waiting to see if she's going to be able to hit those notes, if she would cough or start to sweat or her arms would start to shake on stage. You felt that nakedness that was always there in the songs, but became part of the physical presentation, too.
Kennedy: One moment that sticks out to me is the only time I got to see her live in my lifetime was during her comeback for the "I Look to You" era. I was covering the American Music Awards, and she performed "I didn't Know My Own Strength," and just those textures in her voice where you knew behind it was a lot of pain, but a lot of joy, a lot of experience, a lot of hard lessons, a lot of shame, a lot of so much, right? But there was also that triumph that we always knew she had and how graceful she always was, no matter what, that always shined. So there was something about that moment where it was: I want to show you all I know what you say about me. I know what you think about me, but I want to show you all that I can do it. And she did at that moment.
And just remembering all of the tears backstage. All of us, I mean even down to like stagehands, because it was so incredible, because this is a woman who had so many years of hardship and a lot of bad press, and a lot of horrible treatment by us. Because at that point, we were laughing at her. We made her a punchline, every single talk show. It was just this constant smattering of mistreatment that we would never do now, but we were still there at that point. And so to see her come and rise above it and have that moment was so special.
KCRW: I was thinking that "My Love is Your Love" was going to be the thing that turned her career around because of all these things we're talking about: where she gets to be an adult, or we get to see her pushing through the suffering where it's confessional, it was clearly a sense of authorship. They were all there on that record, weren't they?
Kennedy: They were. Anybody who reads this book will very clearly learn that that is my favorite Whitney Houston album of all time, and I also think it is her absolute best. And it is specifically for that reason. We had asked this woman to show us who she was over and over and over because we never believed her. We never believed her when she said, “I love these records.”
KCRW: Why do you think that we didn't believe her?
Kennedy: I think some of it was the authorship question, but I also think a lot of it too, especially post-"I'm Your Baby Tonight,” at this point she was moving into her soundtrack bag for a little while. But we were seeing what was happening in the tabloids. We were seeing what was going on with Bobby. So we were just like, what's really happening, right? Why are you not making music to that? So for her to do a film like "Waiting to Exhale," which really allowed her to show us herself in an entirely different way than any other film because this was the first film where she was not a singer. She was just a woman, going through 30-something life and relationships and all of that kind of stuff. But she was also experiencing that in real life. And I think that awoke in her in a particular kind of way.
What people never really gave Whitney credit for was she was always ours, and she knew it, so she was always paying attention. She was listening to hip hop; she was listening to everything. And she wasn't afraid to bring that into the fold. So when we got this record, where we have these tracks with Missy, and we have these tracks with Rodney Jerkins. And, she's given us a record like "Heartbreak Hotel." If you think about 1998, and where the genre was headed, it was definitely toeing the line between hip hop, but also really that sweetness of soul that we all loved. But it was also doing the other thing that was coming out in the late ‘90s, which women were really responding to, what dudes were doing on rap records.
So this is the record that we're gonna have Whitney talk her mess. She's gonna actually give us the thing. And she led us to want to think that she might be talking about Bobby. Possibly, right? But it was the way that she was so playful. And these records: I love how biting they were; I love how cheeky some of it was, but I also loved the fact that she had a lot of attitude. She was like, No, I'm gonna remind you all of who I am.
She also showed us from the fashion perspective how she just elevated herself. Some of that was a reflection of how we had been calling her a diva all these years; let me show you what it is to be a diva in a particular kind of way. But also, let me do this other thing, which is culturally, we were still in the last years of the ghetto fabulous era. And she dived into it, because that was part of the core of who she was. And that's what I think made that album so spectacular, because it showed all the shades of Whitney.
KCRW: My favorite from the album is "It's Not Right, but it's Okay."
Kennedy: Oh my goodness, right? The stickiness of a record like that. Even now, we're so many years past that; you could put that record on the radio right now and it will pop. There's something about the timelessness of some of it because she worked with somebody like Rodney Jerkins, who was a little forward thinking, then obviously a lot of other producers that were coming out at that time. And that's what made those records really hot in a particular kind of way.
KCRW: That record where she gets to show that kind of vocal range with that kind of heavy bpm, it becomes part of the tragedy of: she wasn't doing a "Whitney Houston song." Nobody knew what to do with her. That song is getting a chance to see just how playful she could be, but also the amount of sheer swagger there is in that song that basically says, Yeah, I'm not scared of electronica; let's go to work.
Kennedy: Yep. Also, really because of the fact that she had the ability to sing and to bring sort of this gospel melisma into everything she was doing. She could also then slay and completely demolish double, triple time singing. And that's what made some of those records really incredible. Because it's like, wow, she is doing something crazy here where she's sliding on these records, like a rapper would in a particular kind of way. But we also knew that that's what was happening in R&B. That's what Brandi was doing. That's what Destiny's Child was doing. That's what TLC was doing in that era, like Mary J. Blige.
She is somebody who brought so many women along with her. She doesn't get enough credit for the fact that sisterhood was at the core of who she was. So these were all women that yes, they were part of her lineage now because they all have studied her, but she was also hanging out with them and embracing them. These are her home girls. So of course, she's inspired by them as much as they were inspired by her. And that's what I think made that record just such a phenomenal thing.
KCRW: I just found myself so confounded by the fact that there was this need to make her seem superficial.
Kennedy: Right. And I've always kind of struggled with that particular idea. Because take away the gowns, take away the media training, take away all of that. I always like to say when she's not code switching, she's NIBY. And so she never really hid that. Yes, she got it out of her, when you would ask her for the 50th or 100th time like, so what's really going on with Robin or why did you marry Bobby Brown? Just these questions that she had to answer over and over and over. Usually it's somebody white that's asking, and you could see the irritation on her because I also can't think of another person, another celebrity that has ever been asked on national television multiple times to defend their marriage. Why him of all people? What is it and what's going on? Is he cheating on you? Everywhere she went those are the questions. Diane Sawyer is asking her that; Katie Couric. Then when they're not satisfied with that, then it's: so what happened with you and Robin Crawford or: so, do you pick the songs or does Clive just tell you to sing them?
There was this way in which we saw her as this completely manufactured thing because of the fact that Clive yeah, he had a strategy, so that meant I'm gonna serve as certain things, but yeah, there were also some decisions made to package her like any other artist coming out. I mean, that's also just part of how the industry works. But there were these extra licks that she took because of that. And some of that, yes, I think maybe is the family connection. But I also just think it was because we didn't see this authorship in this way that we use as a barometer to validate or invalidate somebody's artistry.