Drawing a line: Adele, Whitney Houston, and the changing of the guard

on February 22, 2012, 3:44pm

On Tuesday, Adele made history and dethroned, in terms of cultural significance, one of her greatest heroes: the late Whitney Houston. Sometimes a major changing of the guard like this isn’t so obvious, or it happens so slowly that you don’t really notice until long after it’s happened. This isn’t one of those times.

So forgive me this emotional platitude: It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. Just as Houston was recieving posthumous, eternal lionization into music history, her record of longest-running, number-one album in the SoundScan era with The Bodyguard Original Soundtrack, at 20 weeks, was defeated by Adele’s 21 at 21 weeks. It’s a record that is coming to define not just 2011, but the era we live in today.

Adele’s 21, an album more than two percent of the United States population bought in a year’s time, estimates Billboard, surpassed The Bodyguard soundtrack’s streak 20 years after its release. Draw a line from 1992 to 2012 and here we are. The heart of dramatic love songs, heartbreak, and balladry go on. We will always love them, forever rolling in their deep.

This is nothing new, of course. It’s been happening in American pop music since Tin Pan Alley. But now we’ve reached yet another, new era thereof. So it behooves us to look back and see how we got here.

 Drawing a line: Adele, Whitney Houston, and the changing of the guardLet’s draw our line a bit longer, shall we? Go back more than twice as far to 1971, the year Carole King’s Tapestry came out. Tapestry held the record for most weeks at number one by a female solo artist before– yup– 21 surpassed it in January. Tapestry has a specific kinship to 21. It, too, is an R&B record made by a white woman about overcoming adversity and celebrating strong womanhood. Like Houston and Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” before it, Aretha Franklin popularized “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”, Tapestry‘s final track, but King wrote it, cutting her own version. From beginning to end, the record sounds like a really killer oldies mixtape today: “I Feel the Earth Move”, “So Far Away”, “It’s Too Late”, etc.

It’s not hard to imagine that our generation will look back on 21 this way, maybe sooner than later. Like Tapestry or The Bodyguard soundtrack, it is “that album that every single woman aged 20 to 40 you know owns,” a friend of mine said. I can’t help but think that, in time, she’ll be proven right.

And so it goes. The world keeps on spinning and each new generation makes its mark. Still, it’s a twisted bit of timing that 21 should break Houston’s record now, in at least two ways: one, it’s strange that this should happen just days after Houston’s funeral. Houston’s greatest hits record spiked in sales last week, as was expected, but it couldn’t surpass 21‘s already-strong sales plus its Grammy sales bump. Adele, the new queen, stayed on top. If Houston’s greatest hits had stopped 21‘s hot streak, it would’ve been Houston sending Adele a message from beyond the grave in a sense, as if saying, “Baby, I ain’t dead yet.” But of course, that didn’t happen. And here we are.

Two, the student has become the teacher. And it seems, tragically and culturally, too soon. Maybe it’s because Houston’s death still feels painfully fresh. Maybe it’s always too soon. After all, these are fast-paced times we live in now and the pace of our culture goes by faster than before (well, if you believe Alvin Toffler, anyway). But aren’t we less monolithic of a buying public than ever before? Aren’t we all experiencing culture separately, subjectively, with our own fractured opinions on blogs and social media, inside our own iPod earbuds?

whitney houston feat Drawing a line: Adele, Whitney Houston, and the changing of the guard

Well, maybe demassification doesn’t affect divas. It didn’t throughout the 20th century, so why would it now? If Adele, like Houston, is a diva that rises above it all– a “rubbish relationship,” to quote Adele at The Grammys; an unfair standard of unrealistic beauty for female performers; her own troubles with performance anxiety and health of her voice– it shouldn’t affect her. That’s her persona as a performer. That’s her story. Maybe the deeply human attribute of a singular, powerful voice is enough to unite music lovers (be they critics, listeners, industry types, etc.) and say, “We all like you. You’re the one we like.”

That’s not to say Adele is Sally Field. And she’s not Whitney Houston, either. I say again that Adele has surpassed Houston in not only cultural cache but general social relevance. Adele probably didn’t think of it, but there’s a reason she didn’t mention Houston in any of her Grammy acceptance speeches last week: she’s made Houston less relevant to today. Adele’s fame in the U.S. is almost a direct byproduct of recession/unemployment-era America. She’s a voice that tells us to be strong, rise above, and to have the bravery to be ourselves if we’re scared to show who we really are. Houston was the byproduct of the comparatively halcyon days of the ’80s and ’90s, an aesthetic that, while very en vogue right now, speaks more to escapist nostalgia than the era we live in today.

Maybe that’s where the torch really gets passed, at a point on a graph amid 1992 and 2012 where Houston’s relevance trends downward as Adele’s just keeps climbing. Draw a line, a simple line. This is what the changing of a guard looks like.


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February 24, 2012 at 8:24 am

“Maybe it’s because Houston’s death still feels painfully fresh” – What a load of shit.

Whitney has been dead for years. She was huge in the late 80’s and early 90’s then took the road to crackdome. was anyone surprised by her death? NO.

As for Adele, let the girl have her moment.

She’s been able to achieve sales and success in a different era, one of youtube, twitter and pompous music blogs while not conforming to look like a pop tart and shaking her tits to sell records. They were sold because of her voice.

Chimier Chimier
February 24, 2012 at 10:29 am

Whitney’s been dead for years? No…she’s been dead for under two weeks. But it’s ok.
Oh, and I’m glad to see that you know how she died, while everyone else doesn’t. The coroners ain’t got nothing on you.

February 24, 2012 at 10:48 am

well, it’s pretty obvious how she died.

i don’t need to be a coroner to know drugs paid a big part in her death and career wise, she’s been dead for quite a while.

Chimier Chimier
February 24, 2012 at 5:58 pm

No, you DO need to be a coroner. You REALLY do, seeing as how it’s FACT that NO ONE knows the cause of death, so you can keep that.
Hmmm…she scored a #1 album in 2009, that sold almost 3 million worldwide, her tour grossed $40m, she won a Lifetime Achievement Awards from the American Music Awards and won a BET Honors. Hardly what I call a “dead” career. 

February 27, 2012 at 12:34 pm

anyone can score a number one album these days. look at some of the crap on the charts.

her career was in the ground for a long time. that last tour was a disaster, people were walking out of shows.


Chimier Chimier
March 10, 2012 at 7:35 pm

Anyone can score a #1 album? So why isn’t EVERYONE scoring a #1 album? Oh.

Your proof of her career being in the ground was that people walked to her concerts? Not because she failed to sell tickets, but because people walked out? People walk out of concerts ALL the time.DEAD

February 23, 2012 at 3:30 pm

Carol king for president 2012!

Leona D Willis
February 23, 2012 at 8:54 am

The headline for this article is amazingly insensitive and deceptive.

Of course comparisons will be made to the talented and recently departed Ms. Whitney Houston, but with Ms. Houston barely being buried for less than a week, and her millions of fans of over 30 years in the making still in mourning, I believe the direction of this article is not only disrespectful, but inappropriate.

Furthermore, to suggest Adele has made a greater impact on “culture” is well, shortsighted and unfounded. Adele has only been on the scene for 3 years. Two albums certainly does not merit such a tribute. Let’s compare and contrast their works in 27 years when Adele, hopefully still a musical contender, has actually put the work in. Right now to compare Whitney to Adele is like apples to oranges.

Chimier Chimier
February 23, 2012 at 2:07 am

This is one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever read in my life. Whitney’s relevancy (or lack of, as you implied) has NOTHING to do with Adele’s success whatsoever. Once again, another post of pure bullshit, w/ people connecting random events and stringing together as many big words as they can in elaborate sentences in order to act as if their articles are actually valid.

Rob Wilson
February 23, 2012 at 1:47 am

Can’t you just be happy that people are still BUYING music in 2012?

joi deanne
February 23, 2012 at 12:16 am

They’re not mutually exclusive. And I think they BOTH will REMAIN relevant. Just as Carole King is still relevant. Would you say Lincoln and his Gettysburg Address lost relevance because Kennedy had a great inaugural address? Part of what makes them great is their voices, their spirit, their power isn’t bound to one specific era. What they do for their audiences (that probably overlap quite a bit) is timeless. Whitney has NOT been diminished by Adele. Whitney has her own light. Adele has her own light. They both exist in their own light.

You don’t have to try to steal from Whitney to give to Adele. Whitney has earned her own for nearly 30 years (or over 48 if you count from the day she was born), She will continue to earn it, even though she has passed. Adele has earned her own in her time, too, and hopefully that will be for many years to come.

Mark Burgie
February 22, 2012 at 4:08 pm

Dafuq did I just read?

February 22, 2012 at 3:57 pm

“Adele’s fame in the U.S. is almost a direct byproduct of recession/unemployment-era America. She’s a voice that tells us to be strong, rise above, and to have the bravery to be ourselves if we’re scared to show who we really are.”

Wut? Not more likely that it’s just good pop music by an artist with a remarkable voice? 


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