Going For A Song: ‘Didn’t We Almost Have It All’

Whitney Houston – Didn’t We Almost Have It All

This week’s blog post concerns Adele’s song ‘Hello’ as much as it does Whitney Houston’s ‘Didn’t We Almost Have It All’.

I heard ‘Hello’ for the first time last week, courtesy of Magic FM as I was being driven back home by my Dad after visiting my parents over Christmas. I was taken aback that the opening was so similar to Lionel Richie’s song of the same name. I felt almost compelled to sing “is it me you’re looking for” after Adele sings that first ‘hello’, and I could imagine scores of session musicians being booted out of the studio through no fault of their own except a compelling urge to do the same.

I tried to work out a rationale behind it. One argument in its favour came from reading the wikipedia entry for 25, the Adele album it’s taken from. On this wikipedia page it reports from a Rolling Stone interview that ‘the album’s lyrical content features themes of Adele “yearning for her old self, her nostalgia”, and “melancholia about the passage of time”’. I took this as an indication that the opening of ‘Hello’ was a tactic to try to convey some of this sense. I bolstered my argument by concentrating on the reference to “California dreaming” in the lyrics that followed. But I couldn’t fully convince myself. The use of Richie’s song seemed to be so blatant that it required recognition, but the song goes no further to acknowledge this borrowing; it does nothing with it. Something didn’t feel right. That it was chosen as the lead single off the new album made it seem all a bit more calculating. It wasn’t until I read writer Adam Roberts’ reaction to the new Star Wars movie that it became clear what my source of discomfort was:

J. J. Abrams and his large team of highly-paid cinema professionals have put a lot of effort and money into making a film that does not surprise its audience overmuch […] They [the audience] don’t want anything that deviates so far from the original template. Indeed, I’d go so far as to suggest that they’re not interested in the film as such. They are interested in recapturing a certain feeling they experienced once upon a time when watching another film.

This is what I feel the opening of ‘Hello’ by using ‘Hello’ does. It places the listener on a comfortable footing. It provides something very familiar. Not to subvert it, but to ease its own way. It latches onto the listeners’ affection (and nostalgia in some cases) for Richie’s song and uses that to increase its standing. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind the song. Adele can sing. If it wasn’t for that opening I don’t think I would have paid it much mind. The sound of the song overall is the sound of breaking America. (This used to mean aping late era U2, but now sounding like Coldplay will do it). It’s the sound that will, and has, shifted many “units”. But for its base to do this is another song. I do understand ‘Hello’ is not the first pop song to ‘borrow’. But yet the reason for doing so, and the effectiveness of it proved (like the Star Wars movie) by its immense popularity, seems to lend itself, as I said, to being a bit calculating, a bit manipulative. And goodness knows I like being manipulated by a ballad, just not in this way.

Magic FM followed ‘Hello’ with Whitney’s Houston’s ‘Didn’t We Almost Have It All’. It was hard not to compare the two. In contrast Whitney’s song seemed full of energy, off an album – Whitney* – that on its release in 1987 also broke America. The songs share similarities of course: there’s the ballad piano opening, and the extended repeat of the chorus at the end. The theme of the songs is similar too, but ‘Didn’t We Almost Have It All’ wins crucially by understanding it has to entertain itself and us. “Cause if you’ve lost someone”, ‘Didn’t We Almost Have It All’ says, “least there’s this big produced ballad to cling to.”

But I feel I need to disclose that my critical contrasting of the songs is maybe skewed. The album Whitney was one of two albums (the other being Don Mclean’s American Pie) my Dad had in the car when I was young. Whitney was the soundtrack to a lot of car journeys. I have to ask if it’s a possibility that in the car again, at the time of year where nostalgia and sentimentality are sold to us most, that my reception of ‘Didn’t We Almost Have It All’ was being mediated by my own nostalgia? At the very least I have to accept, that just like those goodness knows how many millions of people who have listened to and bought ‘Hello’, and whose eyes I’m trying to open in my own modest way with this modest (but at over 800 words rather long) blog post, that I’m as susceptible, I’m not immune, to nostalgia.

_____________________________

* While Adele is accumulating with her album titles – 19, 21, and now 25 – Whitney Houston went the reductive route with Whitney Houston and then Whitney.

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