I feel like I’ve been writing entirely too many of these lately.
Emmy and Grammy-winning singer and actress Whitney Houston passed away yesterday in Los Angeles at the age of 48. Whitney had just wrapped a role in the remake of “Sparkle” opposite Jordin Sparks, and was set to attend her mentor Clive Davis’s Grammy party yesterday evening.
Of course, Whitney’s death is clouded by tons of rumors and innuendo. The singer had long been plagued by a chemical dependency, and it’s unclear at this point whether that played a role in her death. The singer had been in the news quite a bit over the course of the past week, appearing disheveled and out of it during a musical performance, and making the rounds with ex-husband Bobby Brown as well as on-again, off-again paramour Ray-J.
Whatever her demons, it can’t be denied that along with fellow icons Michael and Janet Jackson, Prince, Madonna and George Michael, Whitney was the face–or more accurately, the voice–of pop radio during the late Eighties and early Nineties. She arrived on the scene in 1985 with one hell of a pedigree. Her mother is noted background singer (for the likes of Aretha Franklin and Elvis Presley) Cissy Houston, her cousin is Dionne Warwick. Before she released her first album, she’d sung background for Chaka Khan, posed for the cover of “Seventeen” magazine, duetted with Teddy Pendergrass and Jermaine Jackson, and appeared on the sitcom “Gimme A Break” (fact that might assist in you winning a game of trivia: Whitney was originally the front-runner for the role of Sondra Huxtable on “The Cosby Show”.) It was no surprised that she became a megastar in short order. Before the end of the decade, she’d racked up nine consecutive top ten pop singles, seven of which hit the top spot. She still holds the record for most consecutive number one singles by any artist.
Her career hit the stratosphere at the end of 1992, when her rendition of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” (from the soundtrack of her motion picture debut, The Bodyguard) jumped to #1 and stayed there for a then-record 14 weeks. For the next year, even as she gave birth to daughter Bobbi Kristina, Whitney was everywhere-on the radio, on TV, on the movie screen, in magazines, and on award shows, where she racked up enough trophies to open up a museum.
The rest of the decade found her continuing to score hits in music and movies, although by this time, rumors about her personal life were in full swing. Even before marrying Bobby Brown in 1992, she’d been a tabloid favorite for a range of topics including her relationship with personal assistant Robyn Crawford and she received no small amount of scorn from the R&B music community, who classified her ballad-heavy repertoire as lacking legitimate soul. She was even booed upon winning an award at the Soul Train Music Awards in the late Eighties. The rumors got more sinister by the end of the Nineties, and allegations of drug use were pretty common around this time, especially as her husband rang up a rap sheet longer than his discography.
Whitney kinda lost the plot in the last decade. Her recording schedule became increasingly sporadic (she only released two albums in the last ten years of her life) as her personal appearances drew even more concern. There was that jaw-dropping Diane Sawyer interview, followed by the stomach-churning reality series “Being Bobby Brown.” Seeing the woman once regarded as one of the classiest singers around reduced to screaming “KISS MY ASS!!” (in an admittedly hilarious soundbite) was something of a shock.
I’ll do my best not to editorialize too much here, but Whitney’s personal issues should not take away from her amazing talent. Her voice was a thing to behold in the early days, and even as her various addictions (not to mention a life as a cigarette smoker) meant that she could no longer hit the stratosphere, she adapted well, and it could be argued, her later music had much more emotional depth and legitimate “soul” than her first run of hits. While it can be argued that she never made a definitive album, it can’t be argued that she changed the game for women in pop music. She was the first breakout black female star of the Eighties (and let’s remember that there weren’t many–Whitney, Janet, Anita…that’s it,) and she influenced tons of singers that came after her, from Christina Aguilera to Mariah Carey to just about every female singer that’s ever appeared on “American Idol”-hell, any televised reality competition.
As a human, I was hoping that Whitney would conquer her demons. As a fan, I was hoping that Whitney would conquer her demons and make good music again. Unfortunately, that won’t come to pass.
Several other members of the staff wanted to share their thoughts and give Whitney a proper send off.
Rest in peace. Our condolences go out to Cissy Houston, Bobbi Kristina Brown, Bobby Brown and the rest of Whitney’s family, friends and fans.-Big Money
From my perspective, Whitney Houston’s death comes after a series of coincidental events for me personally. A few weeks ago, I put together a mix of music from 1987. That year saw the release of the Whitney album, which in the US went platinum nine times over. Days later, our friend Mike Duqette put together a great post in his “Reissue Theory” column for that same album. At a recent social gathering, I and mutual friend spent a good 15 minutes discussing the merits of Whitney Houston’s catalog. Yesterday afternoon, I went record shopping and stumbled across the “So Emotional” 12″ (with poster!). As I was leaving the record store after spending two hours digging through the stacks and scanning so many artists and titles, I had a weird feeling of “I wonder who’ll be the next big name to go; it will probably happen soon.” Fast forward to the evening hours when the news of Whitney’s death set the Internet ablaze.
Whitney Houston had a knack for choosing very good pop songs and making them great pop songs. Catchy synth-driven tracks like “How Will I Know, “So Emotional” and “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” probably would have been moderate hits for any comparable female performer in that era. But here’s the catch – there wasn’t a comparable female performer in that era. Yes, you had the artistry and imagery of Madonna, the playfulness of Cyndi Lauper and the Jam-Lewis-Janet dynamo that also took their deserved place in the pop charts. But Whitney’s bombastic, powerful, soul-dripping, wide-ranging voice is what set her apart from her peers. Although it’s her ballads that showcase her voice most clearly, even those dance pop numbers have some incredible, unmatched vocal work. The term “diva” has become incredibly overused in recent decades, but Whitney was perhaps the last true embodiment of that term in the pop world. –Gonzo
You know, it’s strange; I feel like I encounter death almost daily, between beloved celebrities and peers. It’s a sad reality of getting older. Still, even though I mourn for artists that I’ve appreciated over the years and fondly remember their work, the celebrity death that makes me feel a gut-level emotional reaction is fairly rare. It happened with Clarence Clemons last year, for whom I actually shed tears, and it happened when Michael Jackson passed. Even if their best artistic days are behind them, certain pieces of pop culture get so ingrained into our psyches that we can’t but feel like, as cheesy as this sounds, a small part of our youth dies along with them. What I hope the world remembers, more than the “crack is whack” jokes and the Bobby Brown debacle that seems so long ago, is Whitney’s voice. There’s no over-inflating the talents of the departed postmortem here, because there’s no denying that octave-scaling, moon-scraping, powerhouse of an instrument. Whitney always had a great ear for a stellar track, it’s true, but that’s all moot in the wake of how well she performed those tracks; to this day, “I Will Always Love You” is (and will forever remain) Whitney’s torch song, despite the existence of the excellent Dolly Parton original. Parton’s low-key, broken performance is lovely – her take on the song practically defines bittersweet – but Whitney’s performance remains one of the most staggering vocals in all of pop music. It’s not a mere exhibition of skill; rather, it’s a masterclass in how to make each syllable count. Her every note drips with wistful regret, with resilient hope, with starry-eyed romanticism. It’s the rare pop song whose every theme and emotion can be felt, even if you don’t speak a word of the language. Such was the power of Whitney’s heavenly instrument.
I’ll end this remembrance with two anecdotes. In the early ’90s, I was in elementary school. There was this big fat kid named Courtney, and this dude was a little terrorist; we brawled constantly in the schoolyard, in the classroom, on the walk home. So when, on an educational field trip to our nation’s capitol, I was forced to share a bus seat with my portly mortal enemy, I was less than thrilled, to say the least. True to form, we squabbled constantly, the constant threat of 9-year-old violence lingering over the day; but when, on the ride home, the biggest hit in the entire world, Whitney’s “I Will Always Love You”, soared over the schoolbus speakers, every student on that dank yellow bus stopped to sing along. We wailed at the top of our lungs with the airborne chorus, even collectively climbing the scales for that legendary key change. And I distinctly remember looking over and catching Courtney’s eye during this phenomenon; for one single moment, he and I were just a couple of friends singing along to a terrific song. Later that night, he attempted to give me a wedgie and caught a firm elbow to the face, but we were united for four fleeting moments that I’ve remembered for the past twenty years.
And last Friday night, before anyone even knew that Whitney would be gone in 24 hours, the Whitney Houston Phenomenon re-occurred, showing us all that it hasn’t lost any steam. Hosting a karaoke show in downtown Wilmington is hardly a picnic; parking is sparse, and the bars are all full of drunk 21-year-olds trying desperately to get laid. And as these nights go, it was just another Friday night of me trying to prevent drunk dudes from talking directly into my nose, calling security on the belligerent, and trying to prevent inebriated singers from screaming obscenities into the microphone. And then one of my regulars, Nicki, got up to the mic; her selection was Whitney’s immortal dance-pop hit, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”. Nicki’s a solid, versatile vocalist, but it didn’t matter; the way the crowd reacted to the into alone was proof positive that this song is transformative. It could have been all 230 pounds of me up there, braying the lyrics in a reedy falsetto. It didn’t matter; what mattered was the song, and once again, for four glorious minutes, hundreds of drunken twentysomethings were friends.
The following night, they’d all learn of Whitney’s passing. There will always be those who will disparage her personal life; those who simply won’t understand why we’re all so busted up over some singer we didn’t even know. What those people don’t get is that we did know Whitney; she released a little piece of herself with every beautiful, heartfelt note. Rest in peace, Whitney, and go with the knowledge that there are generations of fans for whom youth and vitality are directly connected to your music. Drew
I was probably around seven or eight when my mom purchased the soundtrack to The Bodyguard on CD. I remember hearing my mom play it when I was a kid and being absolutely mesmerized by Whitney Houston’s voice. Sometimes, when mom was sleeping, I’d sneak in to her room and take the CD so I could play it in my own room, and I’d belt along with Ms. Houston to “I Will Always Love You” and “Run to You”. I think my mom finally caught me “stealing” her CD one day when I was singing at the top of my lungs in my bedroom to “I Have Nothing”, but instead of scolding me, she just gave me my own copy of the CD.
I’ve loved Whitney Houston from that very moment, and so hearing of her untimely demise deeply saddens me. It’s always distressing to hear of anyone die at such a young age, but this tragedy does hit home in a personal way- I truly grew up with Whitney Houston. I can’t say that I was a die-hard fan; after The Bodyguard soundtrack, I don’t think I ever owned any of other CDs, but I did purchase many of her singles and could sing along with any song of hers played on the radio. She was always a staple in our home- her music was what was played while my mom did the cleaning, and we often listened to The Preacher’s Wife soundtrack (which has some great gospel music on it) before church each Sunday. Whitney’s voice always transported me to a different place when I heard it, and I wished that I could have a kind of talent like hers.
Regardless of her drug problems and the decline of her public persona over the years, I’ve always had nothing but admiration and respect for Whitney Houston, and above all: hope that she would be able to finally fight off her demons and reclaim her spot at the top of the music charts. It saddens me beyond belief that she’s gone, but I know that she’s finally at peace now, and Heaven must have one hell of a choir.-Brittany
Blessed with beauty pageant looks to go along with the greatest female pop voice I’ve ever heard, my appreciation for Whitney Houston goes long and far. But my first real reaction to a Whitney Houston song was a negative one. In 1987, my San Francisco Giants took a 3-2 lead in the NLCS against the St. Louis Cardinals and then lost the next two games to lose the series. When Vin Scully was saying goodbye, Whitney’s Didn’t We Almost Have It All played behind game highlights. I teared up and every time I hear that song, I think of the 1987 NLCS. I loved that team so much. “The ride with you was worth the fall.”
Big Money said it in the introduction. My favorite piece of Whitney Houston trivia is that she was the early frontrunner to play Cliff Huxtable’s oldest daughter Sondra. How interesting would that have been? While Whitney put together good albums, I can’t say she had a 5-star album for sure. But she had 5-star songs. I’m still a sucker for “I’m Your Baby Tonight”. And I think a lot of her stuff in the 90s is overlooked because people link her to her really early ballads and of course, “I Will Always Love You.”
I really liked a lot of “My Love Is Your Love”. I secretly loved all of her songs on the “Waiting To Exhale Soundtrack”. Secretly, you know because dudes were the bad guy in that movie and those songs. Yes, I even bought “Just Whitney”. If I were to pick just one song as my favorite Whitney vocal performance, it’s probably her cover of Ashford & Simpsons’ and Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman”. Every part of that cover is money.
For a lot of her career, people dismissed her for not being soulful enough (or not Black enough), but if you watched her riff in concert, it wasn’t fair. Her music may have been put together for the pop audience, but she could sing, dance, and was always paying respects to her prior successors. She spent a long part of her career trying to prove those people wrong.
When she went on Oprah to talk about her drug addiction, I wasn’t convinced that she was going to stay sober. She never seemed truly happy. She always seemed to want to prove doubters wrong, in a way that was detrimental to herself. But when she decided to get into show business, she did so to share her gift. It’s the gift and the curse.-GG
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