Race in popular culture is still a touchy subject, but Whitney Houston may be one of the people who made it a little less touchy: according to Tris McCall of the New Jersey Star-Ledger, she and Michael Jackson played a crucial role “in the desegregation of MTV.”
The music video channel took over pop culture at a time when racial divisions were particularly acute in pop music, after the ferocious backlash against crossover forms like disco. It was often alleged that MTV was not a hospitable place for black performers, initially reluctant even to play Michael Jackson. “There seem to be a lot of black artists making very good videos that I’m surprised aren’t used on MTV,” David Bowie said in 1983, to which MTV host Mark Goodman dismissively replied “we have to play music we think an entire country is going to like.”
Whitney Houston was one of the artists who proved Goodman wrong. In the mid-to-late ’80s, when Jackson and Prince weren’t making as many videos, it was Houston who became one of the signature artists on MTV: in a 1987 book on MTV culture, author E. Ann Kaplan wrote that “until the recent advent of Whitney Houston, Tina Turner was the only female black singer featured regularly, and even so, her videos were few and far between.” Houston’s famously eclectic, broadly-appealing style ruled out any attempts to pigeonhole her as appropriate for only one segment of the audience or one type of time slot. Like Jackson, she helped to erode the disco-era bias against dance music and its ability to appeal to white suburban viewers on MTV.
Even in recalling her struggles, she showed the optimistic streak that made her music so popular: “I do remember the hassle of introducing black artists to MTV, because let’s face it, it was solely for white artists at that point,” she recalled in 2001. “But again, you have to be outstanding to break down the walls, and Michael and some others are outstanding.” And when artists are outstanding – not to mention incredibly popular – MTV and radio have to take notice: Journalist Frank Rizzo wrote in 1987 that thanks largely to Houston as well as Jackson, the music industry was enjoying “the best time for crossover artists since the height of disco in the mid-to-late ’70s.”
Her crossover appeal helped pave the way for other acts that fused together various kinds of pop music, and declined to accept that certain artists should stick to certain audiences. One of her biggest hits, “I Will Always Love You,” was a cover of a Dolly Parton country song, erasing the distinction between genres like soul and country. And the song was featured in a movie, The Bodyguard, that continued her streak of breaking down the racial lines in pop culture. Interracial romance in movies was usually avoided altogether or portrayed as a huge issue. The Bodyguard, where Houston’s character is romanced by Kevin Costner, didn’t avoid compromises on these issues (starting with the advertising, that was accused of being contrived to play down the black/white romance aspect). But it was still something of a milestone for the fact that, as the Washington Post put it, “No mention is made of the relationship’s interracial nature”; the characters’ romance was troubled not because of racial differences, but class differences. From MTV to movies, Whitney Houston created work that loudly proclaimed a belief in love and dance, and quietly broke down taboos created by media tastemakers.