August 22, 2019

The Murky Ethics of Posthumous Music

““Think about it,” Whitney Houston commands at the beginning of “Higher Love,” the single with the Norwegian DJ Kygo that’s making a splash in the songs-of-the-summer pool. Those lyrics make for a sharp, effective, dartlike opening. They also might double as an invitation to think about the song itself, which is the first instance of “new”—largely unheard by the public—Houston vocals being released since her death, in 2012. As music, “Higher Love” goes down as easily as a sweet blended cocktail, and it marks Houston’s first entry onto the Hot 100 since 2009. For anyone attuned to Houston’s career, life, and commercial afterlife, it’s a strange and telling document as well.

In its original form, recorded and co-written by Steve Winwood, “Higher Love” hit No. 1 and earned Winwood the Grammy for Record of the Year in 1986. Houston covered it at a concert in Tokyo in 1990 and recorded a version intended for her third full-length release, I’m Your Baby Tonight. It didn’t end up on the album. “When [producer] Narada Michael Walden sent me ‘Higher Love’ with the Whitney vocal, we didn’t want her being a cover artist at that time,” Clive Davis, the music exec who helped shepherd Houston’s career, told Rolling Stone. It was released only as a bonus single in Japan, and remained obscure and little-heard for decades.

But seven years after Houston’s death from a drug-related accidental drowning, her name, image, and voice are set to stir again. In May, The New York Times reported that the executor of her estate, Houston’s sister-in-law Pat Houston, had decided that the time was right to begin marketing the late singer’s work. Plans for a Houston hologram tour had already been much publicized—in part because the CGI Houston who dueted with Christina Aguilera on The Voice in 2016 was, aesthetically, a bit freaky. “After closely viewing the performance, we decided the hologram was not ready to air,” Pat said back then. The fine-tuning process continues. “The hologram has taken precedence over everything,” she said in this year’s Times story.”

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