The late 80s were a time of hope for music. The decade had generated next to nothing in new music that would stand the tests of time and the advent of music television meant that looks and moves often took precedence over content and talent. It was at such a time that Whitney Houston released her first self titled album which included tracks that would go on to be among her all time hits, Saving All My Love, Greatest Love of All, You Give Good Love, and Hold Me. Coming from a family of singers (she was the Daughter of Cissy Houston and a cousin of Dionne Warwick), with good connections in the recording industry, her debut was promoted and marketed by the best machinery one could think of, but it was her vocal talent that made listeners sit up. Here was a voice that was powerful, versatile, and soul stirring. Her persona and album covers were the type you could bring home and your mom would not disapprove. Within a few months, she was a staple of the Sunday afternoon request show on Kolkata’s favorite music show - All India Radio’s Musical Band Box.
Her second album - Whitney - was even whiter than her first, with slick production, and songs like I Wanna Dance With Somebody and Didn’t We Almost Have It All being notable. But the problem with this album was that it came across as nothing more than a better packaged, better marketed version of the first. While it went on to become a hit, it failed to recreate the magic of the previous release. This was the time when music was going through a strange existential crisis, grunge was developing into a force to reckon with, and audiences loyalty to serious music was being challenged by aging rockstars torn between commercial success and creative integrity and new performers with hot bodies and looks that transcended gender, and oh, I forgot, who could sing a little too.
But by now, Whitney had become the archetypical crossover superstar, and it was more of a token acknowledgement of her black roots with her next release - I’m Your Baby Tonight - with its hip hop and soul influences and collaborations. Though this album was also a commercial success, it contained nothing that would make fans look forward to what she would do next. It was during this period that she recorded One Moment In Time and performed The Star Spangled Banner at the 1991 Super Bowl, two of her best performances ever in my opinion.
The 90s saw her getting into acting in movies, with The Bodyguard, Waiting To Exhale, The Preacher’s Wife, etc. She also got married to the ex-New Edition rapper Bobby Brown. For many, this was a strange marriage. Whitney had positioned herself as the essence of purity, with her songs, with her style, and with her unspoken distance from the roots of black music, while Bobby Brown was the proverbial bad boy of rap, with legal, financial, family and drug troubles trailing him like flies after the garbage truck. It was almost as if Whitney was making amends for her image of innocence and beauty. Their initial years saw them looking happy, and they had a daughter not too long after that. Things began to sour with time, with news of assault and verbal abuse trickling out. The couple spent fifteen difficult years together before the marriage ended in a divorce in 2007.
The movies also yielded some great songs, especially The Bodyguard, with almost all of its tracks managing to redeem Whitney in the eyes of her critics and fans alike, somehow managing to retain the pop sensibility without sounding like rehashes, and with some extremely powerful and creative vocal work by her. I Will Always Love You, I Have Nothing, I’m Every Woman, Run To You, and Jesus Loves Me are all from this soundtrack and continue to rule the airwaves to date. Waiting To Exhale with its all-star lineup of performers gave Whitney a great deal of the credibility that she desperately needed, though her most popular contribution to the album, Exhale Shoop Shoop can hardly be counted among her greatest songs. Though Why Does It Hurt So Bad did not make many of the top playlists, I still rate it as a better song.
In my opinion, the greatest tragedy of Whitney Houston’s life lay not in her troubled personal life or declining vocal prowess in the later years, but in the fact that her best work as a singer is perhaps among her least recognized. I am referring to the soundtrack of The Preacher’s Wife, an amazing collection of gospel tracks that showcases the richness of Whitney’s voice, the spiritual depth of her feelings, and the technical finesse that was perhaps largely wasted on an audience that turned her songs into dance accompaniment music at weddings and parties. If you have not heard this album and are a lover of good music of any genre, I strongly recommend you get hold of it.
At the turn of the millennium she released My Love is Your Love, notable perhaps for only the title track, a soul meets reggae meets pop track with Wyclef Jean, and Heartbreak Hotel, a song made more pertinent with the rumors of a troubled marriage starting to get louder and louder. Her public image too was taking a beating with drug possession charges, legal and financial battles with her management company, erratic behavior and disjointed appearance on television and at events making more news than her music.
In the 2000s, she released a couple of forgettable studio albums, a couple of greatest hits compilation, and a Christmas album, none of which contained any new material that could match up to the artistic reputation she had built up. In 2009, putting her 2007 divorce and her struggles with drugs behind her, she released I Look To You, her first studio album in nearly seven years, planned on a concert tour, and appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show, also her first TV interview in seven years. The album went on to be a commercial success, but in spite of some exceptional songwriting and production values, Whitney’s voice was no longer what it used to be, and all her enthusiasm could not recreate the magic of her earlier years. Critics were often outspoken about both the album and the Nothing But Love tour to promote it. She missed the high notes, looked tired and withdrawn, cancelled shows, and left many in doubt as to whether she was truly holding together as a performer and a person.
Whitney Houston was able to straddle glamor and simplicity, blend soul and pop, marry negro spirituality with white audience expectations and turn out songs that were inherently kitschy but elevated to the level of poetry by her rich and steady voice. One never ceased to be amazed at how her later songs would showcase her vocal mastery by bringing in an upward scale shift just when you thought she had hit the highest notes possible. And she would manage to add a trill to it that sounded just unbelievable at the top of the melody, holding it for what seemed like eternity.
Her work not only laid the foundation for the emergence of singers like Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, but set a new standard for female vocalists to aim for in the field of the popular song format that would see people like Alicia Keys, Norah Jones, Joss Stone, and several others try to emulate and develop more than two decades after her.
May you find in death the peace that you sought in life, RIP, Whitney.