Tuesday, February 14, 2012

What was it about that song?

I'm not gonna link to that song. You know what song I'm talking about. In the days since the tragic death of Whitney Houston, chances are you've heard that song somewhere on the radio or TV, repeatedly, by now. You know.

The Bodyguard came out at just the right time for its stars. Kevin Costner was two years removed from Dances With Wolves and couldn't have been any bigger or hotter. Houston was already an established megastar, with a trunkload of Grammys and poised to take Hollywood by storm. Lawrence Kasdan wrote the screenplay (fun fact: it was originally gonna be for Steve McQueen!), and while British director Mick Jackson may not have been a household name, he was just coming off of the delightful Steve Martin comedy LA Story.

The Bodyguard did not fare well with the critics. Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman called it "an outrageous piece of saccharine kitsch" and the New York Times' Janet Maslin called it a "long, sprawling semi-travelogue," but audiences loved it enough to make it the seventh-highest grossing film of 1992. (And good or bad, it deserves props for not making a big deal about the interracial aspect of the romance.)

And then there was that soundtrack. And that song.

Let's run the numbers, shall we: fourteen weeks at number one in the US alone. Number one in sixteen different countries. Quadruple-platinum-certified. Grammy-winner for Record of the Year and Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female. The third-biggest-selling single OF ALL TIME from the biggest-selling soundtrack OF ALL TIME.

And technically, the song's not even hers.

Though she certainly made it hers.

I'm not gonna get into comparisons between the original version and Houston's version. I'm more interested in how The Song in Question got as big as it did. 

Was it simply a matter of timing? I remember Houston at her late-80's-early-90's peak. I have some of her records; in fact, it was my father who bought me her debut LP. They still hold up. Prior to The Bodyguard, it did not seem as if she could get any bigger or more successful. She was everywhere. She, along with Michael Jackson, made MTV safe for black people. Did I mention the trunkload of Grammys? And then The Song in Question just catapulted her into the stratosphere. No, she already was in the stratosphere; it put her in orbit.

It's difficult to talk about The Song objectively, because we have all heard it too many times to be objective about it anymore. It's just become part of our collective unconscious, like The Brady Bunch and Smurfs and Tang: it's not a matter of liking it or hating it anymore. It simply is. In fact, I'd argue that The Song, and the way Houston sung it - the bombastic, hitting-all-the-high-notes, playing-to-the-crowd vocal calisthenics - helped paved the way for the American Idol era of music. I think Houston recorded better songs, but something about that one just drove people wild the way "My Heart Will Go On" drove people wild only five years later.

Today being Valentine's Day, it's worth pointing out the ultra-romantic appeal of The Song as well as the movie - which is ironic, because if you look at the lyrics, you'll see that it's actually a sad song. Funny how that gets overlooked most of the time, isn't it? But there have been other love songs from romantic movies, sung by equally talented singers. What made this one so very different?

Maybe it really does come down to timing. Who can say for certain why a certain song hits with people when it does, whether it's The Song in Question or "Don't Worry Be Happy" or "Hey Jude" or even "Friday"? That Houston had world-class talent is indisputable, though, and like so many other musicians before her, from Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker, through Karen Carpenter and Janis Joplin, and on into Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse, her struggle with her personal demons consumed her before her time. But the music, as ever, remains.

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