Pusha T’s Whitney Houston Homage: Work Of Art Or Moral Atrocity?
“Everything Ye say cause a new debate,” raps Kanye West on Pusha T’s album Daytona. In the run-up to its release, West caused shock by crossing moral lines. Talking to Trump was bad enough, but tweeting in praise of him was incendiary. Then saying: “When you hear about slavery for 400 years … for 400 years? That sounds like a choice,” took him into new realms of jaw-dropping.
By comparison, a row over Daytona’s artwork, chosen by West, may seem trivial. A sleazily fascinating image, we see a bathroom where luxury and squalor dance towards a death foretold. Heading for disaster, an addict’s mess is scattered around the sink’s gold taps.
What powerful artist staged this scene? No one, actually: it was a picture of Whitney Houston’s bathroom, taken by a member of her family in 2006. Houston drowned six years later, with her cocaine use and heart disease listed by the coroner as contributory factors. Her estate expressed its “disappointment” at the photo’s use. But what exactly did West and Pusha T do wrong?
The image makes a classic album cover, one of the greats, because it is so suggestive of infinite corruption – and because it’s a perfect match for Daytona’s trenchant portrait of modern life. This viscerally poetic album is about drugs and money, money and drugs. The Houston estate is saddened that “no one is exempt from the harsh realities of the world”, but revealing those harsh realities is what good art does, and Daytona is very good art.
So far, so what? This is not the first time an album cover has caused controversy. Yet something is different. Today’s political climate means that moral criticism is no longer confined to conservatives. What happens to pop’s immoral allure in an age of absolutes? Can art still cross ethical lines?
When West, newly toxified by his outrageous outbursts, tweeted that he admired gun-control activist Emma González, she repudiated his support. Well, who would want the support of one of the world’s most famous rappers, who apparently has the president’s ear? Cultural politics is no longer about building alliances but defining differences.
West seems immune to this need to look righteous, but elsewhere in pop there is an unseemly rush to goodness and a fight over who possesses virtue. Madonna was accused of comparing herself with Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela after posting pictures of them in the style of her Rebel Heart album cover to Instagram in 2015. You could argue she’s been a liberator, too. Nicki Minaj shared an image of Princess Diana to announce her album Queen, although its actual cover is a lot less pious in its semi-nude splendour. Will inspirational anthems be the music of the reformed future? We’ll have to round up all the rappers first.