Whitney Houston died two days ago. I feel very sad about this although I was not the biggest of Whitney Houston fans. I didn’t dislike her music, but I was too young to truly appreciate her work during her 1980’s peak. In the 1990’s when I was old enough, she was already something of a joke because (1) she was tabloid fodder due to the troubled marriage to Bobby Brown and the rumors of drug use; (2) most of her best work was so quintessentially 80’s that by the mid-1990’s it was passe and retrograde; and (3) a new crop of the Whitney-inspired pop princesses–foremost among them Mariah Carey–ruining singing. The ensuing competition between Whitney and Mariah for chart dominance spawned a generation of singers (the apex being Christina Aguilera) whose idea of “interpretation” is to over sing everything by letting no syllable pass without melisma whether the song needs it or not. We are still witnessing the fallout.
But that was not Whitney. Whitney was the scion of pop music royalty. She was daughter of Cissy Houston of the Drinkard Singers, who was also possibly the world’s most famous backup singer, the originator of Midnight Train to Georgia, and the aunt of Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick. If you’ve ever heard Cissy Houston sing, it’s uncanny how alike mother and daughter sound. Despite the heritage though, Whitney’ style was completely different from her mother, as well as from Dionne’s sophisticated pop and Dee Dee’s grittier R&B sound. Whitney was instead a fusion of the big voice of her godmother Aretha Franklin and the pop sensibilities of Diana Ross. Whitney, like Ross, sang songs that appealed to widest possible audience, but like Aretha blew away her listeners away with her sound. Add in the fact the fact that Whitney was ravishingly gorgeous and completely fit into the zeitgeist of the 80’s and it is no surprise that was she was one of the decades biggest stars–easily the equal of Michael Jackson and Madonna. Unlike her two peers, Whitney was uncontroversial, and that only added to her appeal. Who didn’t like Whitney Houston at least a little?
There is no question about Whitney’s talent, but there is about her artistry. The same songs that allowed her to develop a massive following also caged her in. Whitney sang bubblegum pop. It was good bubblegum pop, but her song selection was far inferior to her talent. In this way, the song never outshone the singer. Even her one truly interesting song, her mega-hit cover of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You,” was typical Whitney. Dolly’s original is a breakup song written to her former business partner and mentor Porter Wagoner, the man who introduced her to the world. It’s not romantic at all; it’s a platonic love letter to a dear friend whom she knows she is going to hurt but doesn’t want to. The vocal and the instrumentation are soft, subtle, and plaintive.
Now compare that to Whitney’s version, the centerpiece of her movie The Bodyguard. This is no melancholy breakup song. I’m not even sure that this is a breakup song. The defining part of the song, is about the final 90 seconds or so when the song pauses and Whitney changes keys to belt out: “And IIIIIIIIIIIII-EEEE-IIIIIIIIIIII will always love YOOOOOOOOOU! IIIIIIII will AAAAAAlways love YOOOOOUUUU! (Rinse, wash, repeat a few times.) The notes are more or less the same ones Dolly sang (albeit lower and softer), and no one can belt it like Whitney. It’s straight out of gospel. Those 90 second sweep aside everything that came before them. It’s what everyone remembers.
As a performance Whitney’s cover clearly tops Dolly’s original, but as a song it falls way short. In the cover it is all about the performance instead of about the words. More to the point, it is all about Whitney’s performance. As with her 80’s bubblegum, Whitney outshone the song rather than working in tandem with it. Nevertheless, it worked for her. Because Whitney’s cover is so striking, most of the younger generation doesn’t know that this was and is Dolly Parton’s song. “I Will Always Love You” has become the new “Over the Rainbow”; no other version will supersede Whitney’s and only the most foolish of singers will take her on.
Other writers have written about how Whitney was a symbol of empowerment, especially to other black women. This is true. She was the trailblazer for black women that Michael Jackson was for black singers in breaking down the MTV color barrier. There is something to that. Because her audience was so large, MTV couldn’t keep her out if they had wanted to. Maintaining that popularity was probably a part of the reason why Whitney stuck to what she was comfortable doing rather than trying to branch out as an artist. It also allowed her to keep the focus on herself (how many of them about “I” or “Me”?).
Yet she was so much the full package: talent, personality, and beauty, that it was impossible not to be impressed by her. One of my saddest musical moments was watching her sing one of the songs from her comeback album in 2010. It was painful, and I turned to my boyfriend and said, “There’s no voice anymore; it’s just technique.” If you ever listened to Billie Holiday’s penultimate album “Lady in Satin” then you know what her voice was like. The difference was that because Holiday spent her career interpreting songs rather than merely singing them (even at her best she did not have anything close to Whitney’s instrument), she could use her shredded voice to great emotional effect. Whitney did not have that ability.
I realize that the reason I was so deeply affected a couple of years ago and why I am now is because somewhere between the 1990’s and 2010, I understood her appeal. I get why she was Whitney Houston and what made her so special. It was all about the voice: the rich, perfect, pure, refined voice. It didn’t matter what she sang, only that she was singing. It really was all about Whitney but only because Whitney was so enormously gifted. In an age when most of the top names in pop music rely on melisma, Auto-Tune, audial illusions, or performance art, it is important to remember why Whitney was different and better. She relied solely on the power and tone of her voice and nothing else. There will never be another Whitney.