Some people stay open to experience, despite the slings and arrows of life’s always outrageous misfortunes. To be a pretnaturally hopeful person is to generally stand apart from one’s more mundane friends and family, among whom complaint too often passes as conversation. Can happiness be a permanent point of view? Can a wish? Several days ago, I spent time with a young man I had not seen in a while, largely because I felt he was so shut down, and critical of bodies not his own. But he turned up during Gay Pride weekend, and I was seeing a number of people I had not seen in a long time. It was a wonderful weekend to walk around New York’s lower West side, and to learn about any number of things, including fashion. The best fashion is always devised by those who cannot afford it. And among the hordes of young people of color who promenaded up and down Christopher Street and its environs (there were more men than women) on those sultry nights, one noticed a particular trend among the girls: head ties that ended in a little bow at the top of the head, like sweet rabbit ears. When I asked a young friend who works in retail about it, she said that it was in homage to Whitney Houston, and one of her “I Want to Dance With Somebody” video looks. In addition, I loved the ripped tights worn with raggedy tutus I saw a number of girls and some boys sporting that gave the parade a distressed carnival atmosphere. But back to that other young man and his various criticisms. During the course of his visit–he’s in his mid-thirties–he talked about how much he loathed his body, that it had always been this way, and, as he talked, I realized that he had come around to tell me who he was after having spent a fair amount of time attacking me for having given him–anything. His viciousness was at least in part an outgrowth of his self loathing, and the whole time I had weathered his various cruelties, and watched his friends do so as well, he was more or less talking about himself. A very wise lady friend who spent much of her time giving to others what she’d destroy if you made her a gift of it, once said that my particular tragedy was that I felt people were actually talking to me, when they were generally talking about themselves. And in recent months, a wise doctor I see for twice monthly chats told me that, for the most part, people are talking out of their own tiny reality; conversation was not some shared exchange. That was my fantasy. While listening to Fiona Apple’s uncommon new album, “The Idler Wheel is…,” I was struck anew by what Apple expresses better than any of her contemporaries: jaundiced hope, and the fact that cynicism can exist side by side with wishes. Who would Apple be without her brilliant fetishization of disappointment? The record opens with a lullaby, and in short order we hear Apple’s always distinctive use of percussion–drums in particular, and the piano as a drum-like instrument. Then there is Apple’s voice, which strikes me less as a “pure” singer’s voice than a spoken word artist’s–limited but resonant, Apple’s sound is not the direct result of having powerful lungs, but a mouth that relishes fucking with words. She gnaws them like bones, trying to get the marrow of her meaning out. (In this she is like other powerful but limited female singers, such as Lotte Lenya and Abby Lincoln: actors who projected musical feeling.) In a sense, the first song, called “Every Single Night,” Is a lullaby, or an ode–to Fiona herself, and to her insomnia. “Every single night I endure the flight/Of little whims of white flame/Butterflies in my brain/These ideas of mind percolate the mind/Trickle down the spine/From the belling swelling to a blaze.” The ideas that begin to percolate in the listener’s brain have to do with what a torture consciousness can be to an artist with a conscious, which is to say an artist like Apple. As she lays awake, numb to solace, Apple sees her body, and it’s interiority, and it is a wonderland of waste and anger and hope. “That’s where the pain comes in,” begins the next verse. “Like a second skeleton/Trying to fit beneath the skin/I can’t get the feelings in..And I say to her/Why’d I say it to her/What does she think of me/That I’m not what I ought to be.” Apple has a double. There’s the Fiona who lives inside her body, and then there’s “her,” the Apple of no one’s eye who fights for her unhappiness as hard as Fiona seems to fight for belief. The various dichotomies thus established, Apple moves on, primarily to the album’s second great theme: her existential isolation. Apple is as alone as she wants to be. Does she love it, though? Can she change her mind about how right it feels for her to be in her room, alone? O.K., she’ll try a person, and maybe kiss them, but will the kiss be as nourishing as her spooky but fun isolation? (Fun because she can make music.) She’s a realist who dreams of something different than the discomfort that visits her when she’s in close proximity to love, and it’s various unknown possibilities. Not that she doesn’t know how she feels–she begs one former lover in the unbelievably beautiful song, “Jonathan,” the most powerful and witty track on the album, to ignore her as she “calculates and calibrates”–but it’s a pity that the Other feels something for her various others. (This was the subject of her unforgettable “Fast As You Can,” from her 1999 album, “When the Pawn…” In the brilliant video by Apple’s former lover, Paul Thomas Anderson, the best of her career, the filmmaker encourages the singer to be a film actress, and she expertly collaborates with the camera. ) But who can blame her male subjects for falling for her? She articulates what it is like to be prescient about how things don’t change, and will change, but only if we change. Can we? Apple’s emotional radicalism separates her from that which a number of female singer/songwriters ask for again and again: to be saved by a lover. Instead, Apple turns to her dissatisfied double for approval, that same skeleton that won’t let her sleep, but maybe that’s all she has. Apple will and will not save herself, and how fascinating is that imbalance to watch, let alone listen to? She is a great writer who is a young Dylan’s equal in terms of building character and a persona through dense, picturesque lyrics. But unlike Dylan, Apple has yet to move into the world at large, and report on other lives, other stories. But that’s OK for now. She’s smart enough to move past her own story eventually, and include other aspects of the world in her work the better to enhance it, and make it grow. It’s lovely to imagine what she would make of hope in those Gay Pride streets, say, mixed in with someone else’s confessions about gay self-loathing, all the while keeping her eye on those Whitney Houston rabbit ears wilting in the first rush of summer.
Whitney Houston Archive
Snow can be a notorious memory stimulator. Last Saturday, when we experienced what felt like winter weather for the first time in a long time, I was having dinner with a gay female friend who works mostly in Los Angeles. We were just catching up, and had yet to order, when my friend received a text from a woman friend, also gay, in Los Angeles. Whitney Houston was dead. There was nothing to say. We looked out the restaurant window, and the snow began to fall. So did the memories, not in droves, but in flakes. Whitney Houston’s alternately powerful and bland resonance for us was not inseparable from our queerness. Indeed, the gorgeous star who had been circumspect about her personal life until she married the already played out but seemingly indomitable teen performer, Bobby Brown, in 1992, was less the author of a touchingly open, gospel-trained voice trying to find meaning in frequently meaningless lyrics, than the beloved friend of a woman named Robyn Crawford, who had been Houston’s closest companion since the singer was sixteen years old. (Crawford was also Houston’s longtime executive assistant.)
In the early nineteen-eighties, one sometimes saw Crawford in those places where women of color then gathered—the Duchess on Seventh Avenue South, say, or the Cubby Hole. In those small, self-protective-by-necessity worlds, everyone knew what everyone else did, and with whom, and Crawford was often spoken of in the same breath as the lovely Houston, who had modeled for Essence, and was the daughter of Cissy Houston, herself the cousin of Dionne Warwick. That was all we knew. But as Houston’s career overwhelmed her personality—every significant pop star suffers this fate; often they don’t live long enough to reverse the order—she was still “our” Whitney down there, near Christopher Street, in the West Village: a perforce closeted superstar who had to make a living because she knew gay didn’t pay.
This was familiar to us, particularly when it came to those black female performers, ranging from Bessie Smith to Ethel Waters to Billie Holiday, who skipped over the gay parts of themselves, let alone their milieu, in order to be someone’s idea of femininity, but whose? Whitney Houston always looked like a “femme”: coiffed and sleek, a Jersey girl who could be tough, but she had an even butcher personal assistant who could deal, if it came to that. Houston grew up musically and otherwise in a black Baptist church, where sin hangs heavy in the air, and on the heart, and queerness is the last thing an intolerant population cleaving to Jesus and “correctness” wants to deal with. To be queer is to question if not sully black conservatism, with it’s rather complicated relationship to heterosexuality as the paradigm of “real” love, while homosexuality is viewed as a white-bred or “European” perversion. And black conservatism shuts its eyes to uncategorizable flowers. That Houston was able to walk in that field as long as she did is a testament to her strength in her difference.
But the pop world is just as conventional as the black universe Houston grew up in; in both, appearances are considered deep because the world responds to the shallow. As Houston’s fame increased, and she was sanctified by marriage, she drove a wedge between the world she and Crawford inhabited together, becoming a martyr to heterosexuality. (At one point it was said that Houston would appear in a remake of “A Star is Born,” co-starring Bobby Brown. How much would the film have meant if it were about a female superstar who came out about her gay past without offing herself?) Still, Crawford, and what she symbolized, would not leave Houston alone. In 2002, Diane Sawyer interviewed the singer and her then husband in their Atlanta home. Sawyer asked about Crawford, and Whitney, looking double-crossed and angry, said to the camera, and presumably Crawford: “And I love ya.” Get over it. It’s interesting that Houston thought of the camera eye—her most consistent companion for decades before her death, and now forever—was Crawford, her no doubt most steadying love, and honest influence.