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.
A fellow music blogger friend of mine recommended this book to me and I finally got around to reading it. When I checked the book out from the library, my roommate laughed at how “on brand” it is for me. What can I say, I love music history, and new wave is, admittedly, a genre/era that I don’t know much about.
I have to say, Are We Not New Wave is not immediately accessible. It’s written primarily for an academic audience, rather than the average reader. Yet it’s compelling: the book situates new wave in the context of both punk and disco, the era and genres that preceded it. New wave maintains punk’s disaffected sensibilities (see: The Cars), throws in some disco danceability (see: the B-52’s), and comes up with something new. The genre can also be seen as somewhat highbrow; Elvis Costello’s glasses and clever lyrics lends it some gravitas.
The book also encouraged me to reflect on my own relationship with new wave. Of the bands it discusses, the one that I’m most familiar with in terms of oeuvre is The Cars. I love their debut album, of course; it’s almost entirely composed of their greatest hits. Heartbeat City has the bouncy “You Might Think,” and Candy-O has “Let’s Go.” (As a music fan, I think there’s really nothing wrong with liking just one or two songs off an album, even [especially?] if they’re what was most heavily promoted or released as a single.) The Cars have a lot in common visually with punk; they have a similar wardrobe to the Ramones: sunglasses, leather jackets, limited color palette.
That was another aspect of new wave that I hadn’t thought of before reading this book: music can be defined as much by appearance as it is by sound. Aside from The Cars, the aesthetics of new wave were very plastic-y and forward-thinking; for example, the book begins with The Buggles’ seminal “Video Killed the Radio Star.” The song is an early glimpse of new wave, with its synths and high-pitched, slightly flat vocals, and futuristic vibe. It’s also a literal description of what was to come: the song was the first that MTV ever played, and new wave would dominate the channel for much of that decade.
I’d give Are We Not New Wave 3.5/5 stars. I enjoyed it, but there were times when it was a bit too dense, even for someone as obsessed with music history and trivia as I am.