LA Expanded

If You Weren’t So Gorgeous

L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley

Whitney Houston, center, with her mother, Cissy Houston; father, John Houston, second from right; brother, Michael Houston, left; and half-brother, Gary Garland in Newark. Circa 1979.

“She could have been signed on the basis of her pedigree alone,” said columnist Stephen Metcalf, talking about Whitney Houston on Slate’s culture podcast Tuesday, four days after the singer’s death. “Her godmother was Aretha Franklin. Her mother was an accomplished gospel singer. Her cousins were Deedee and Dionne Warwick. She could have been signed based on her looks alone”–she’d modeled and appeared on the cover of Seventeen before she’d sold records–“and she could have been signed on the basis of her voice alone.” Metcalf concluded, “To have any one of those things could make you an enormous star. The fact that she had all three. . .”

“Just in technical terms, I don’t think I’ve heard a better instrument in my lifetime, even from singers I prefer, who are better. . . in terms of expressiveness or just the vibe,” added Slate music critic Jody Rosen. Her performance at the 1991 Super Bowl, just after the Gulf War, showed that instrument’s full force; it also again showed Houston had it all. Said Rosen,

You can really really hear the extraordinary range and nuance in her voice. She’s just technically out of this world, and, also, it tells you something about the stature of Whitney Houston: here was this black women who was quote-unquote America’s sweetheart–she was called that many times–and at this moment of National crisis or of fervent jingoism, she was called upon to play the Kate Smith or Bing Crosby role . . . as F-16s roared overhead.

The “whole package”– sweetheart, stunner, virtuoso–is something you can only be if your body, your image, is put out into the world along with your talent and brain. So it’s pop stars who deal with the pressure to be/have everything far more often than other artists.

Hannah Wilke, "S.O.S. Starification Object Series," 1974-82. Courtesy Museum of Modern Art.

In the visual arts, in fact, being/having the whole package is sometimes suspect. When, in the 1970s, Hannah Wilke made small vulvar, fleshy forms out of latex, ceramics or bubble gum, attached these to her body,  and posed topless for pin-up posters, critics accused her of flaunting her beauty. Amelia Jones, in her essay “Everybody dies. . . even the gorgeous,” quotes Wilke: “People give me this bullshit of, ‘What would you have done if you weren’t so gorgeous?’ What difference does it make?. . . Gorgeous people die as do the stereotypical ‘ugly.'” Looks didn’t give her an advantage, she implied.

But Wilke’s looks and attitude were special. Her dark-haired, svelte form; her flawless skin speckled by those unsettling orifices and folds of flesh; and how she looked at the camera in that disaffected, disinterested way Linda Evangelista would later adopt — all this emblazoned itself into your memory in a way the vulvar sculptures on their own would not have. She became the perfect conduit for her art and, attached to her physical, visible self, her sculptures showed even a conventionally “gorgeous” body to be cavernous and complicated.

Narcissister, Still from "Every Woman," 2010.

“I had started developing performance work where I used the orifices of my body, and for me it was about achieving my own grander virtuosity,” said the artist Narcissister, whose short film Every Woman (2010) screened in L.A. on Valentines day, as part of Dirty Looks: Long Distance Love Affairs at the Hammer Museum. At the start of Every Woman, Narcisster, whose entree into performance was as a dancer in the Alvin Ailey company, appears nude except for the  plastic barbie doll mask she always wears and her red, long-fingered monster gloves. Chaka Khan’s singing “I’m every woman, it’s all in me/Anything you want done, baby/I’ll do it naturally” as Narcissister’s performing a reverse strip tease. She’s pulling her clothing out of first her mouth, then her vagina, then her hair, until she’s dressed in tube top, earrings, tight striped skirt, panty hose and heels, with purse and sunglasses to complete the picture. Chaka Khan’s refrain (“I’m every woman, I’m every woman,” again and again) plays on as Narcissister runs her gloved hands up and down her flashily, unnaturally, clothed body until the curtain closes and the video ends.

There is something virtuosic about her; she’s striking, composed, clearly a skilled performer.  But she’s stuck inside the “whole package.” And if she weren’t so gorgeous, it wouldn’t be so obvious that having it all doesn’t ultimately help.