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How Cruel Can Fame Be, Bobby Brown? : R&B singer says his marriage to Whitney Houston has stabilized his life and enabled him to better handle the pressures that accompany star status

September 27, 1992|ROBERT HILBURN | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

For years, three topics were inevitable when talking about Bobby Brown: his dynamic talent, Michael Jackson and drugs.

Now, there's four: Whitney Houston.

The couple's wedding last July was possibly the most publicized ever by two pop stars--the recording world's equivalent of Burton and Taylor.

Here is Houston, an immensely gifted singer with magazine-cover good looks who has sold an estimated 17 million albums in the United States, and Brown, the so-called "bad boy" of R&B whose 1988 "Don't Be Cruel" album has topped the 8 million mark worldwide.

The 23-year-old Brown has been called the next Michael Jackson almost as much as Bruce Springsteen was once called the new Bob Dylan. Both Brown and Jackson are dynamic performers who first gained attention in teen-age R&B groups--New Edition and the Jackson 5, respectively--before going on to extraordinary solo careers.

But the real comparisons began after "Don't Be Cruel" shook the pop world. The album was a trailblazing collection that mixed traditional R&B with hip-hop energy: a brash, exciting, young urban sound that was called New Jack Swing. Jackson was reportedly so impressed that he hired part of Brown's production team to work on his "Dangerous" album.

Brown also proved to be a striking performer, moving around the stage with the confidence and sexuality that not only caused young female fans to shriek, but older critics to acknowledge that a new star had arrived.

But all this has been accompanied by questions and the inevitable pressures that usually result from life in the pop spotlight.

Tour cancellations after the album and a one-year delay in the recording of his next album--the just-released "Bobby"--led to concern over just how Brown was handling that pressure. Drug rumors abounded.

Now that the new album is in the stores, reaction is divided. Some critics who feel the album is too conservative are asking if all the Michael Jackson comparisons were premature. Brown may have to prove himself all over again to a skeptical pop world.

But the question that hit hardest to Brown during the Sept. 9 MTV Video Music Awards show involved his marriage--a union that some observers called too good to be true, literally. Cynics suggested everything from a publicity ploy to a lifestyle convenience.

For Brown, the marriage would soften the rebellious image that has grown out of the longstanding drug rumors and the admission that he has fathered three children out of wedlock.

For Houston, 29, it would help combat tabloid stories questioning her lifestyle and asking whether the pin-up queen prefers the companionship of women to men.

The question of the marriage--whether it was a front--was raised during a backstage press conference, and it hit Brown like a slap in the face.

Visibly angered, he defended the marriage and them stormed away from the press tent.

"That was a big shock to me, but I don't pay attention to all of that stuff," Brown says in an interview. "You learn how to deal with ignorant people.

"Whitney and I just try to maintain our relationship as it is and not let the tabloids run our lives. What they say means nothing to the love that we feel for each other. Basically, we just brush it off.

"I didn't think I was ever going to get married until I met Whitney," he says, speaking easily. "After I met her, my whole outlook on a lot of things changed. I think I was with the wrong people to understand what love was about. They didn't understand me . . . they never trusted me.

"They were wondering what I was doing on the road or somewhere. My wife gives me that freedom to be myself. She's very secure and she knows how much I do love her. It makes me feel better to know I have a strong woman beside me."

Bobby Brown may remind many pop fans of a young Michael Jackson in terms of career history, massive ambition and performance dynamics. But he's nothing like Jackson when you meet him.

There's a natural magnetism about many superstar personalities--including Jackson and Prince--that separates them from the mere mortals around them. A Jackson or Prince would probably stand out even if they weren't legitimate celebrities. There's an aura of strong individuality in how they dress, carry themselves and relate to others.

Not so with Brown.

The singer--whose thin, boyish body has given way to a more muscular, adult physique since his "Don't Be Cruel" days--almost catches you by surprise when he walks away from a group of dancers and introduces himself in a North Hollywood rehearsal hall. He's dressed in ordinary workout clothes and there's no one trailing after him to cater to his every whim.

This naturalness continues in the interview. There's no sense of performance--as with Prince, who has been known to conduct interviews in semi-darkness, or Jackson, who used interviews in the late '70s and early '80s to add to the mystery surrounding him.

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