Whitney Houston tries to match early successes

July 16, 1991|By Gary Graff | Gary Graff,Knight-Ridder

LATE LAST October, Arista Records chief Clive Davis sat at his desk, playing bits of songs from Whitney Houston's third album and peppering the preview with his own judgment -- mostly using the word "great."

It was, he proclaimed, a fine album, more mature and funkier than Houston's first two releases. It should, he said, be a monster seller like its predecessors -- which have sold almost 40 million copies and launched a record-setting string of seven consecutive No. 1 hits.

But, cautioned Davis, "we don't approach this with any sense of aggressiveness or cockiness. We work hard to make this . . . as great as we can. Hopefully, everyone who liked or loved her before will be happy, and she will also make a giant number of new fans."

Has she? Since its November release, Houston's "I'm Your Baby Tonight" albumas sold more than 6 million copies worldwide. She's added two more chart-topping singles to her streak -- the title track and "All the Man That I Need" -- though her current hit, "Miracle," stopped at No. 2 on the Billboard charts. Still, her Super Bowl performance of "The Star Spangled Banner" turned into a perfectly timed patriotic smash.

For Houston, who will perform tonight at 7 at Merriweather Post Pavilion, these are impressive figures, the kind a vast majority of pop acts would sacrifice body parts to match. But in Houston's case, there's a sense of disappointment, the feeling that the new album hasn't lived up to the phenomenal success of its predecessors.

Her situation indicates how pop music's criteria for success have warped since the mid-'80s, when Michael Jackson sold almost 40 million copies of his "Thriller" album. As hard rocker Kip Winger notes, "It used to be a holiday if you sold a million copies of an album. You do that now and it's ho-hum. It has to be 9, 10 million at least before it's a big deal."

Indeed, multimillion sellers were rare before "Thriller," and albums such as Fleetwood Mac's "Rumours" and the "Saturday Night Fever" soundtrack were celebrated for their (then) record-setting commercial feats. Nowadays, however, Winger is correct: A million copies is hardly musical chump change, but a record needs to be a multimillion seller before it attains blockbuster status.

This perceptual change was caused by several factors that increased the potential number of buyers for any given record. The pop music market has, of course, expanded over the years; the original rock 'n' roll generation now includes parents and even grandparents, and their interest in pop hasn't flagged while subsequent generations embrace the music. This growth made possible the popularity of music video, which in turn provided new and ubiquitous opportunities for music promotion.

It's a logical progression: More fans and more exposure equal more record sales. If all the factors fall into place, selling a million albums isn't quite the feat it used to be -- and moving more is expected.

But what happens after the first time? After "Thriller," Jackson was in the unreasonable position of following up the best-selling album of all time; his next record, "Bad," was termed a disappointment even after sales of 20 million. Prince, Duran Duran, Tina Turner, INXS and ZZ Top are among the acts that have faced and foundered under expectations created by multimillion-selling releases.

Now Houston has joined their ranks. The predecessors of "I'm Your Baby Tonight" -- carefully crafted under the direction of Arista's Davis -- were bona fide sales phenomenons that shifted Houston's career into high gear from the get-go: Each of her first two albums sold 19 million copies worldwide, the biggest debut splash ever. This, the well-pedigreed singer says, was not an accident.

"I know there were things my music carried that were very poppy, very slick, very catchy, which is what we wanted to do," says Houston, the 27-year-old daughter of Cissy Houston and cousin of Dionne Warwick. "We wanted that mass appeal. I wanted to appeal to every body -- moms, kids, dads. We wanted everybody to like what Whitney was doing, and it's great we achieved that."

It would be easy, then, to blame stylistic tinkering for the sales decline suffered by "I'm Your Baby Tonight." Four of the album's tracks were the work of the hot Atlanta-based songwriting-production team L.A. Reid and Babyface; they gave Houston's sound a much-needed funkification, but it was a notable step away from her previously successful formula of upbeat pop and lush love songs.

But that argument is rendered moot by the fact that Reid and Babyface's title track was the album's first No. 1 hit.

What's really happening is that, after a sizzling start, Houston's career is cooling down and settling in at a level that's impressive by any standard -- except when measured against her prior accomplishments. "I think this is a good time for Whitney, actually," says Janine McAdams, Billboard magazine's R&B editor.

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