OTR, Take 25: Whitney Houston - The Bodyguard Soundtrack

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Hello hello and happy Saturday!

You may or may not have noticed that there was no OTR last week. I decided to take that entire week away from posting on LinkedIn or otherwise engaging in any social media. Instead, I spent the week reading more, spending more time making and enjoying meals with Audra, playing guitar after letting that habit slide a bit.

Honestly, it was a nice break. And any such break invites some reflection.

One of the truly pernicious aspects of social media is that, to a great extent, we get to project what we want others to see of us. This isn't a novel insight. Hell, there have been books written about this phenomenon. But I wonder whether the ubiquity of the insight blinds us to it, sometimes. We know that a person's Instagram account isn't a reliable portrayal of his or her life, but we are emotional creatures and knowing something rarely eclipses the emotional response we have.

So we tell ourselves a story that we don't feel. Guess what wins out?

One of the things I often find myself struggling with when writing for LinkedIn is balancing the thoughts I have about how to better do business, the hard-won wisdom that only comes with failure after failure, and the acknowledgment of those failures, owning them and their scars, sometimes in real-time. Because both of these things are true:

  1. I want to encourage people to pursue entrepreneurship and gain better control over their work and their lives; and
  2. I do not want to engage in any of the "here is a seven-step foolproof plan to build an 8-figure one-man business in two weeks!" nonsense.

The truth of the matter is that building your own business is hard. This is true, even if we've built one before and have developed some expertise. Every business has its own dynamics and it takes some time to learn and calibrate them.

I haven't been sure, exactly, how to write about my current ventures. Wendy and I are hard at work at getting Purely Estates Law Group up and running, although we have some ways to go before we can say it's running smoothly. There's a slightly painful phase of every business that involves doing things the painful way, feeling the pain, and building processes and procedures for making that thing easy going forward. This is where the work is done so that the business becomes mature and process-driven.

That doesn't make the work fun, all of the time. But we're doing the work, and I can't tell you how wonderful it is to work with a partner who will do the work with me.

I've also been running a bit too hot working to get a big project for my startup firm, McGrannLAW off the ground. I'm sharing this news with OTR first because this is still pre-launch and subject to a fair amount of change; it's not ready for a larger announcement. McGrannLAW is becoming

Probably not the final version of the branding, but close.

Seed Counsel will be fully subscription-driven, and designed to serve even the greenest of startups through scale-ups. I'm really excited to bring this thing to life: less a law firm as we know it than a business incubator and legal-ish partner for growing businesses. (This might also be the start of an interesting AI-integrated product, but I'm not going to get ahead of myself.)

Anyway, I'm hoping to launch an MVP version of Seed Counsel by the end of the month. Initially, I'm going to limit participation to 10 startups. If you know of any great startups, send 'em my way. I'm looking for startups willing to help me dial-in the offering, so they'll have a tremendous influence on what the subscription will ultimately look like.

Let's talk about today's record, Whitney Houston's star turn in The Bodyguard Soundtrack. A few weeks back, Audra told me she ordered a record but wouldn't tell me what she ordered. Several days later, a record-shaped box appeared at our door. Inside?

What up with Costner on repeat in the background of the cover?

My mother-in-law apparently used to play the six Whitney Houston tracks on this soundtrack on repeat when driving around her children in the early-to-mid 90s. This album is etched into my wife's mental circuitry. So I thought I'd listen to it this morning.

I admit this with some shame: Whitney had become obscured in my memory a bit by the troubles she fell prey to. I knew she was good.

Holy hell, folks. I just want to focus on two of the tracks on the soundtrack, because they are truly extraordinary pieces of work.

My vague recollection of Whitney Houston was that she had an excellent voice, but was a bit of a screamer. By that I mean, someone with such a powerful voice she didn't have a lot of control over it: she had the power, so she went full blast at all times, like those assholes in muscle cars who insist on trying to drag race you out of a red light.

Exhibit A

Okay, we all know this song. I wonder if your recollection of it was as far off as mine was. Most of my recollection is of the end, the soaring chorus and the nailed high notes. Now, that is masterful singing, the kind of singing only two or three voices each generation can muster.

But the more impressive bits are right there at the beginning! I have to admit to standing in near-disbelief when I first set the needle down on the record and "I Will Always Love You" kicked off. The restraint is astonishing, wringing every note for the emotion of the song. I started the song over three or four times just to listen to those opening 40 seconds.

And yes, the song builds to the transcendent choruses at the end, but it's so tastefully done. There's nothing over the top. No unnecessary vocal flourishes. It's brilliantly done.

By the way, did you know that it's a cover? Of a Dolly Parton song?

It's not often that someone can make Dolly seem small, but there's no comparison between these two versions. I love Dolly. But this one isn't close.

Okay, fair warning: I'm going to go full-on music nerd for this next one. I won't judge you if you zone out on this.

We have to talk about the sorcery of "I Have Nothing." Here's the track:

Exhibit B

Please take a minute and listen to the track. What's the first thing you notice?

It's the constant modulations between keys, right? No? Let's focus in.

To my ear (and don't hold me strictly to this, I'm just going by my ear), the song begins in G major in a 6/8 time signature. At about the 1:20 mark of the song, you hear Whitney hit a three-note rise ("Don't make me") as the song introduces a 3/8 measure, and then when she hits the note for "cry" the song moves into B flat major. One of the subtle things here is the second of the three pick-me-up notes (the "make" note) is flattened, which is the note that unlocks the modulation of keys.

The technical name for this is a flattened submediant modulation, but all you really need to know is this is both difficult and really impressive.

We head back down to G major for the second verse and as we head into the second chorus, you would expect the same three-note rise to change into B flat major. But Whitney isn't that straightforward. She hesitates and riffs on some notes still in G major but hints at a change. I cannot begin to tell you how hard this shit is. And then at 3:09, she kicks it up to B flat major and hits the chorus.

The sorcery on this song isn't over. The next move fascinates me because the effect is different from what you'd expect. You can hear the key change made from G major to B flat major, and it's highlighted by that three-note rise that precedes the choruses. You can tell that she's moved into a different register.

At 3:40 she kicks it up again with an augmented second, from B flat major to B major. This key change sounds far more dramatic than the previous key changes, even though the jump isn't as large. Maybe it's because the first two changes from G major to B flat major are introduced by a flattened submediant modulation whereas this one is preceded by an augmented second? I don't know. But it's magic.

So I guess the moral of today's OTR is that behind something that seems straightforward is often something quite complicated.

Wendy and I are learning that to make a business appear seamless, there's a lot of work needed on the backend of things.

The idea for Seed Counsel is simple. But simple isn't.

And Whitney! Good lord. These impeccable pop songs have so much going on behind the pop veneer that it makes my head spin. It's funny how you can listen to something for the first time in decades and hear something so fundamentally different from what you remember.

It's a reminder that there's no such thing as effortless success. When it appears effortless, it just means that the effort has already been expended, behind closed doors, alone or with trusted partners. There's no such thing as a natural at the highest level: only a "natural" who has worked his or her ass off so it looks easy by the time you see it.

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