I! Love! Reading! About! Music! History! It’s just who I am as a person. And I especially love reading about music history when it’s done with as much warmth and sensitivity as Gerrick Kennedy’s biography of Whitney Houston, Didn’t We Almost Have it All. As soon as he started talking about his relationship to music (not just Houston’s), I knew I’d enjoy the book. I feel the exact same way: music can bring joy and an escape. And the book is extremely approachable, too; it’s written in a casual tone. (Sometimes too casual – there were moments when the repeated use of “shit” was jarring.)
I was particularly compelled to pick up Whitney’s story because it’s actually not one I know a lot about. I’m from the era just after her star, so brilliant, bright, and game-changing, had begun to fade. I do, of course, know her big songs – don’t we all? As Kennedy points out, it’s wild that just four songs made her a global superstar.
Kennedy writes, “Because Whitney was engineered for pop audiences there was this expectation that she needed to be all things to all people…” (p. 103) Trite as it may seem, it was this pressure that drove her to self-destruction. In Didn’t We Almost Have it All, Whitney emerges as both a cautionary tale and a tragic figure rather than the media punchline she became.
The reviews of Whitney’s early albums were fascinating to read (p. 91). They were called “disappointing” and over-produced. It reminded me of how Led Zeppelin was panned by Rolling Stone back in the day, and now they’re falling over themselves to label Jimmy Page the greatest guitarist of all time.
My rating? 4/5 stars. The book got repetitive after a while, and there were several sentences, sometimes whole paragraphs, that were confusingly worded. That said, Kennedy deals with Whitney’s demons using the grace and delicacy that they deserve, and definitely didn’t get throughout her career. And the ending of the book made me tear up. In the moment, the media is so confident to cast public figures aside, only to “learn its lesson” years, or even several decades, after the fact. It’s a vicious cycle.