People make fun of Whitney Houston, and it's not fair. They carp that she has no hand in her career much less her records and dismiss her as a voluptuous-voiced airhead. To be frank, Houston doesn't do much to help the situation. Dressed in spanking-clean white jeans and sneakers, she straddles a Harley on the cover of I'm Your Baby Tonight, ready for an evening of daring thrills. But judging from her vacant expression, the idea seems to excite her about as much as the prospect of spending a night at home in front of the fire reading the collected works of Marcel Proust.
Yet it's precisely this blank-slate quality that makes Whitney Houston a true heroine for our age. All around her, the world is going to hell the economy is down, taxes and divorce rates are up, the Persian Gulf is tense. While every self-aggrandizing pop star is singing about such topics, Houston will have none of it. In interviews and personal appearances, she merely flashes a ''Gee, I never thought about it'' smile. She just wants to dance with somebody who loves her, and who can blame her?
In that regard, I'm Your Baby Tonight, her overly-long-in-the-making (it's been three years) album, is the most perfectly realized Houston work to date. On her first two records, a battery of producers and writers dolled up the young thoroughbred and spoon-fed her generic pop-R&B. The songs and hair stylists made Houston a star of stage and videos, but the albums were, at best, patchwork quilts juxtaposing bouncy dance tracks and ballads that could have been lifted from late-night help-an-orphan TV ads. In contrast, Baby adheres doggedly to one agenda: to prove Houston is a get-down, funky human being who can party with the best of them. The album is relentlessly superficial and proud of it.
Granted, it's taken 7 producers, 34 recording engineers, 16 songwriters, and 6 makeup people to accomplish that task, but no one said it would be easy. Anchored by four tracks helmed by L.A. Reid and Babyface, current producers of choice for the studio-funk crowd, the album is all gossamer synth frills and thumping drum beats. The title track tries too hard to follow in the footsteps of Michael Jackson's ''The Way You Make Me Feel,'' down to cries of ''whoo!'' But at least it has a discernible melody, unlike such nonentities as ''Anymore'' and ''Miracle.'' Even contributions by estimable talents like Luther Vandross (who produced the bouncy ''Who Do You Love'') and Stevie Wonder (who sings with Houston on the sluggish ''We Didn't Know'') blend into the mush.
For her part, Houston does the best she can to keep up with the album's dance-fever settings. On the first track, for instance, she carefully pronounces ''everything'' as ''everythang,'' and throughout the record she ably mouths lines like ''I've been to the bottom but I'm back on top/And I'm feelin' the rhythm as we start to rock'' to demonstrate she can be as sex-obsessed as the next pop star. And in what could be seen as an audition for her pending movie career, Houston gets to act ''angry'' on ''My Name Is Not Susan,'' in which she scolds a bedmate for calling out the name of an ex-flame in his sleep.
Does it matter that I'm Your Baby Tonight is utterly without content, both musically and lyrically (''And in the morning when I kiss his eyes'')? Not really, if what you're looking for is music with a shiny surface. Babys seamlessness is perfect, because it bespeaks an all-encompassing inner void that is not only fascinating but honest. Houston wants to be dressed up, paraded around, and supplied with ready-made things to sing and feel. And that's fine. Sometimes you just want to lie in a lump on your couch and not bother. That way, you don't actually have to feel anything, and you don't risk getting hurt. While the rest of humanity struggles to cope with everyday trauma, Whitney Houston has it all figured out. D+