Tuesday, February 14th, 2012

Whitney Houston

Whitney Houston’s voice was built for the ages. Fittingly, her success spanned a long period in a time when pop changed at a rapid rate. When presented with a fizzy 80s dance track, she sang the hell out of it and lifted you as high as her upper register. When an enormous ballad was required, she was emotive and controlled, and so when big movie tie-in ballads were big, she was bigger still. Despite the seas of taste shifting after that, she moved to R&B with consummate ease and added another stack of platinum to her already-impressive resume. Her ability to adapt to seemingly any point on the spectrum of contemporary pop music is testament to her gifts as a singer.

Sadly, while voices on record last, those who own them cannot. At 48, it’s easy to say “too young” and indeed, some of her recent output suggested that her voice had much to give, even as false reports of her death, drug convictions and wildly inconsistent concert performances may have suggested otherwise. But even as she transformed from pop heroine to tragedienne, there was never any question that her life would detract from her records’ many virtues: sometimes emotive, danceable or slinky but always technically stunning. People may have giggled and emailed links to news stories about her troubled life every time they were published, but I’m sure a large proportion of them then immediately went to Youtube or their CD rack for a fix of one of her many hits.

And that’s what we did this weekend.

Alfred Soto on “Memories” (Material ft. Whitney Houston)

To be even juicier critbait this track should have boasted a Go-Betweens cowrite. By 1982 Material had mastered their canned art-funk so that the likes of Nona Hendryx and Nile Rodgers could express themselves without sounding like they were crashing a boring friend’s dry party. This Hugh Hopper-penned number, designed as a chance of pace, gives the young Houston her most important showcase to date. As a Yamaha piano bangs away at the melody and Bill Laswell’s bass pokes add subtle dissonance at the tail end of phrases, a singer of startling freshness weighs each verse as if afraid to trip over it; she’s feeling her way through the performance — a vulnerability captured on tape that those familiar with the aerodynamic confidence of 1985 won’t recognize. With the exception of “You Give Good Love,” Houston has never sounded so charming. That’s its only weakness: Houston doesn’t convince me she understands the lyrics. She gives an expert rendition of adult feeling. Luckily Archie Shepp’s horn gets it. And maybe Nona Hendryx would’ve been a better choice after all.

Rebecca Toennessen on “Saving All My Love For You”

When I was nine years old, we lived in a small farming village, and the Big City was Appleton. When returning from a trip (usually something thrilling like grocery shopping) back home, if it was at night or wintertime dark, I’d turn around and wistfully watch the lights of Appleton disappear. We listened to the radio, of course, and at nine I listened to the charts on Magic 101.1 FM. I was already well-placed to like Whitney Houston. Though I didn’t own her albums, my sister owned Whitney Houston and her record collection was mine (I contributed the Pointer Sisters and Tina Turner; my collection was not as well-stocked as my sister’s but had one more record than Father Dougal’s).

Whitney’s song of forbidden romance — she’s saving all her love for a married man — is one of longing, and evokes in me that same feeling as driving away from Appleton. The jazzy sax and Whitney’s buttery-soft voice on “Saving All My Love” was the first of seven consecutive number-one singles in the US. Wow! She was another distant pop idol to kid-me, out of many adored singers. She’s left a wealth pop hits and this is one I’ll remember most fondly.

Frank Kogan on “Saving All My Love For You”

Spent yesterday AM trawling YouTube for mid-’60s Wilde Flower and Soft Machine demos of “Memories,” noticed how external facts keep screaming at lyrics. E.g., in ’67 Robert Wyatt sings “We used to walk the streets together,” and we know what’s coming but he doesn’t. (At a drunken party in ’72, Wyatt fell from a fourth-story window, paralyzing himself from the waist down. The YouTube rip of the ’74 solo version shows him in his wheelchair. Same song, different meaning, etc.) So in Material’s 1982 version, Whitney Houston is going “I’ve got to choose between tomorrow and yesterday.” Except since it’s a first or early Whitney recording, we’re retrospectively thinking of a voice that only had tomorrows. On the Material record, sax player Archie Shepp is the one who delivers the song’s poignancy. And I find Wyatt’s vocal smudges in ’67 and ’74 more expressive than Houston’s clear swoops and lines. But then, Houston isn’t going for that type of expressivity. She wants clarity and force. Her style made most sense to me on stormers like “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me).” But thanks greatly to a Freaky Trigger discussion in ’09, “Saving All My Love For You” has now seeped into me as something mammoth. In “Memories” Whitney sang (lyrics by Hugh Hopper), “Can’t stop to think about my life here today.” In “Touch Me In The Morning” Diana Ross sings, “Touch me in the morning, then just walk away/We don’t have tomorrow, but we had yesterday.” “Touch Me In The Morning” was co-written by Michael Masser, who co-wrote “Saving All My Love For You.” The other writer of “Saving All My Love For You” is Gerry Goffin, who back in the day had written the lyrics to “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” (“Tonight with words unspoken, you said that I’m the only one/But will my heart be broken when the night meets the morning sun?”). Of course, in “Saving All My Love For You,” she’s not his only one, and when he promised she would be, he’d lied. The affair doesn’t have much of a tomorrow, and probably never had all that much of a yesterday, either. She’s saving all her love for him, rather than dispersing it among many others; but he, the married guy, sure isn’t doing the same for her. The clarity of the singing is eerie in that it underlines her lack of illusions, making the contrast extra intense: she’s totally committed to the night, at the expense of knowledge and reason. “‘Cause to-NIGHT, is the NIGHT, for feeling al-RIGHT” (as opposed to all the other moments in her life?). She slams down those words. Tom Ewing, setting the stage for the Freaky Trigger convo, says this makes us feel that she’s not accepting the situation, that something’s got to give (“you can almost hear the cutlery slamming down on the table as she lays it, ready for him to walk in the door”). The flip (see Lex on the comment thread) is to say that the arrangement suits her perfectly, that she avoids having a relationship that dribbles out and becomes normalized in the day-to-day. She’s saving all her love for the NIGHT, since tonight is the night that outshines her days and outshouts the yesterdays and tomorrows. And this is where Whitney’s clarity and strength and command take over lyrics that could be delivered as sorrow, anger, and devotion but here — delivered with steady diction — are a triumphant, blazing immolation.

Sally O’Rourke on “How Will I Know”

Whitney’s voice was tailor-made for grand romantic sentiments, so it was a given that she’d build her reputation on ballads. But there was always a layer of spunkiness peeking out beneath the sincerity, the flash of a grin at the edges of her mouth, as if to remind you that the woman behind the powerhouse voice was barely out of her teens. With “How Will I Know,” Whitney finally had full lease to show off the bubbly (and bubblegummy) side of her persona. The track was designed to be her big crossover hit, even if pop audiences were sharp enough to propel “Saving All My Love for You” to the top of the charts first. But it was “How Will I Know” that won her permanent rotation on MTV, securing her a position as one of the biggest pop stars of the ’80s and ’90s. Everything about the sound of “How Will I Know” screams 1985, from the synth squiggles to the obligatory sax break, but the song’s lyrics — asking advice on how to find out if a boy likes her back — could have been ripped from a Shirelles track. Unlike some of her peers, though, Whitney didn’t have to try to be edgy. She knew her vitality and seemingly boundless talent guaranteed her stardom. She also understood how to best use her talent to serve the song’s needs. The backing track on “How Will I Know” may be relentlessly upbeat, but Whitney never forgets the line “falling in love is so bittersweet,” belting each note and framing lines with little sobs to convey the anguish of uncertainty. But for all the power in her voice, there’s a playfulness to her approach that keeps the song light on its feet. When godmother Aretha Franklin shows up briefly in the video, via a clip from “Freeway of Love,” it isn’t a gimmick; it’s the defining voice of a generation passing the torch to her worthy successor.

Jamieson Cox on “Greatest Love of All”

I have a couple favourite unassailable Whitney Houston hits (“How Will I Know,” “I’m Every Woman”), but if I had to choose a single Whitney song to take with me to a desert island, I’d take “Greatest Love of All.” It’s an easy song to dismiss as pure schmaltz or as carefully curated, star-making Clive Davis cheese. But the power of Whitney’s voice transcends cheese, or cuts through it; her charisma and her energy are transformative here. When the maudlin verses threaten to overwhelm, she roars back in the bridge and chorus. Some pop singers craft narratives with tiny adjustments in tone or inflection, but Whitney does not do “tiny”: every transition from verse to bridge to chorus is like being hit with an F5 tornado, or having clouds magically part to reveal a brilliant sunrise. It’s impossible to glide over or miss whatever sentiment Whitney is working with; she clubs you in the face with emotion until you yield, crying or smiling or giggling or all three.

The unfiltered joy of “Greatest Love of All” is tempered by what came after 1985 for Whitney. The song has been rendered painfully bittersweet. It breaks my heart to hear Whitney on blast, belting with all her considerable might:

I decided long ago, never to walk in anyone’s shadows
If I fail, if I succeed, at least I live as I believe
No matter what they take from me
They can’t take away my dignity

She was 21 years old. How could she possibly know what was to come? I hope that despite her years of hardship and humiliation, she left this world with some semblance of the dignity she once held so proudly intact.

Zach Lyon on “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”

It’s a bit pedestrian of me to pick “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” without having much to say about the song itself, seeing as it is, of course, one of her most enduring and emblematic hits. I’d love to come up with something new to say about it, but I have no desire to talk about it as a piece of art, or as a reflection of who she was as a performer and a person, or as a piece of the zeitgeist. I’ve only ever wanted to thank her for it, for giving me one of the songs that saved me from my youth and delivered me to my contentment. I associate this song with one of my favorite memories – a maudlin, slow-motion sequence I’m not useful to describe, but trust me – and that moment wouldn’t exist if it hadn’t been for the song. It wouldn’t be true to say that that was the moment, at fourteen, that I stopped thinking about dying, but I will gladly lie and say it was. Mawkish, I know, but this song is magical. I hate how it’s taken her death to remind us all to celebrate her, given what she’s given us, and there’s obviously been a lot of ink spilled over her impact as an icon and her influence as a performer, which is perfect. But let’s also remember the power that her songs had and have — she was a pop princess in the 80s and a pop queen in the 90s, and it’s power that she dealt in. Thank you, Whitney.

Doug Robertson on “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”

So, for all the — appropriately enough given her singing style — histrionic wailing that’s gone on since Whitney’s death, everyone seems to be overlooking the fact that regardless of her success she wasn’t so much a singer as someone that sang songs. Sure, she could sing — even if her up and down the scales, never using one note when she could use a dozen has essentially destroyed everyone’s perception of what a good singer actually is, what with understatement now seen as a bad word — but there was always an emotional disconnect between her performance and the actual song. Whenever she was belting them out — and she belted them out better than an fashion expert who specialises in waist accessories — she always seemed to be thinking about something else. Her voice was saying that she would always love you, but her eyes were trying to remember if she needed to buy milk. And while this clearly didn’t hamper her success in any way, this disconnect could sometimes work wonders, as proven here. You wouldn’t know it from a casual listen, but this is a lyric so depressing that it can only be described as depressingly depressing; a heartbreaking litany of loneliness and a desperate search for reciprocated love, ending with the repeated, unanswered plaintive refrain of “Don’t you wanna dance?” over and over again. By rights this should be a morose and self-pitying slice of acoustic awfulness, and if someone was to cover it now, that’s exactly what it would be, but instead it’s drowned in eighties disco production and presented as an uplifting floorfiller that can probably still make a hen night hit the floor faster than a jockey fighting a heavyweight boxer, and, you know what? THIS IS HOW IT SHOULD BE. Moping around your house, whining about how no-one loves you isn’t going to change your life — even Morrissey would probably rather not be Morrissey, given the choice — but going out all guns blazing, ready to take on the night and what it has to offer at least gives you a chance of finding the person you’re looking for. Searching your bedroom for something that has genetic material isn’t really going to come up with something you want to have a long-term relationship with, more something that will interest the CSI team. Sure, you’re still taking your misery along for the ride, but at least there’s the opportunity to forget the pain of solitude for one night, and sometimes one night is all you need. Whitney may have been going through the motions, and would no doubt have given exactly the same performance had she been given an Argos catalogue instead of the lyrics, but it works, and no matter what else is involved in a song, that is the only thing that matters and one of the hardest things to get right.

Andy Hutchins on “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”

I first heard “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” on the first mix CD I ever got from a friend. It was either her copy of the CD that “Somebody” came from or the mix that was scratched, though, because it skipped on “Chase the blues away,” turning it into “Chase the blues uh-a-away.” I listened to that CD and to the MP3 I ripped from it so often that I now anticipate that skip in every version of “Somebody” I hear. When I was 15, this was just a happy song about wanting to dance; now, at 21, it’s a powerful, sun-kissed reminder that the lonely (“When the night falls/My lonely heart ca-al-alls”) can be happy about looking forward to love, and as perfectly arranged as a pop song can get, matching the Whitney qua Whitney with all sorts of horn flourishes and fizzy synths that soar and dip with her. And, oh, shit, that emergence from the bridge to the key change. By the end, I can’t do anything other than give in to “Doncha wanna dance, say you wanna dance, doncha wanna dance!?” That was Whitney’s genius: You believed her every note.

Michelle Myers on “Didn’t We Almost Have It All”

“Didn’t We Almost Have It All” is my platonic ideal of how an R&B ballad should sound. It carries no pretensions of being cool. It is unabashedly schmaltzy. There are synth violins layered over everything. Beyond its sequined aesthetic, it is melodically powerful. I tried to sing along to it this morning in the shower, and found it to be a difficult tune to follow. It goes unexpected places and makes difficult jumps, but Whitney never lets her virtuosity get in the way of a good performance. Always warm and passionate underneath all that control, her emotions build over the course of the song to a bombastic climax. If Whitney was ever a fuddy-duddy A-C popstar, this was it, and that is meant as no insult. Few have done mature balladry as well as she did, never mind that she still in her mid-twenties when she recorded this song.

Sabina Tang on “So Emotional”

“So Emotional” was the last Whitney Houston single I discovered: three weeks ago, laid up at home with a broken foot, going through the vinyl back catalogue I’d temporarily liberated from the file cabinets of the community radio station where I volunteer. The cover was so destroyed I had to Scotch tape it together to keep the record from falling out. It didn’t feel like crate-digging — how many copies of this must there be, hanging around? — just a methodological back extension, as it were, of William Gibson’s endless digital Now. I could have surf-stumbled upon it in Youtube; three weeks ago the intervening years were moot. Her voice in this song, as in many others, barely registers as art to me (those glossy 1987 kick drums in the backing track are another story): it seems a pure expression of chemical upswell, the translation between thought and sound unconstrained by tiresome physical laws eg. timbre or range. Your neurotransmitters to mine, con amore.

I learnt about Whitney Houston’s death on Tumblr: three completely unrelated people had reblogged photos or videos of her, from that self-titled album era, at the top of my dashboard, and I knew. What else could that mean? I googled, then went back downstairs to tell my best friend, who was washing dishes in the kitchen. “Whitney Houston died. She was found dead in a hotel room.” “Oh, how sad.” I’m not sure sad was the word for what we felt just then; it was still that moment of compulsive meme transmission, pre-analytical and characteristically human (as an alien anthropologist would say). Then we sang, spontaneously, a bit of the chorus of “I Will Always Love You,” the way people do, without really trying for the appoggiaturas or the right octave. This was not agreed upon; we just did it together. Your neurotransmitters to mine. I’m still wondering what kind of existence the alien anthropologist, watching this scene, would have deduced Whitney Houston was to us. “So Emotional,” this morning, sounds like it happened long ago.

Katherine St Asaph on “So Emotional”

We failed Whitney. We, as a culture. We failed her in the most grotesque, obvious way, by treating her pain as a public audition for a permanent farce. We failed her with our jokes. We failed her with our memes. We failed her by letting Bret Easton Ellis blither away over Twitter about what actions he’d project onto a fictional fuckwit. Over the coming days, we’ll fail her by looting her autopsy and memory for anything that feeds pageviews.

But that’s standard treatment for anyone hurting while famous. We failed her music as well. We failed it by ensconcing it in ’80s spandex and frizz-hair and oldies radio. We deployed the terms “schmaltz” and “cheese” without thinking about what they imply. We brought our assumptions about R&B, disco and gospel — her influences — soaked in the precise prejudices you’d expect, and using it to dismiss her craft. We failed her craft, too, by turning her voice into some sort of American Idol unsolvable equation and telling fledgling singers to twiddle their melismas until they get the voice almost just right while ignoring what that voice meant, while stripping the songs dead as the Great American Songbook.

Songs don’t tend to die, though; they’re resilient. We did all this to Michael Jackson and worse, and his back catalogue is more respected than ever. There is no reason the same can’t happen for Whitney Houston. Everyone reading this is probably well into a trawl through YouTube, one that’s probably surprising them in little ways even about songs they thought they’d solved. It’s surprising me. “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” for me for years, was the definition of lightweight fluff, a cheery chorus with chipper high notes and little else. Of course I hadn’t heard the verses or thought about what it’d actually imply to admit such loneliness in such a song. It’s humiliating in retrospect. And it took me the isolated vocal track, like everyone else, to hear the clench of fear behind every heartbeat in “How Will I Know” (a clench others, like Robyn, noticed sooner).

But suppose you haven’t gotten there yet, that you like millions of others have Whitney stuck in what you think of as fusty Clive Davis taste. “So Emotional” isn’t a bad start. Here’s something else humiliating: for years, I assumed it was a song Christina Aguilera covered — covered long ago on her debut in 1999, just as “the next Whitney” was beginning to fade as a viable career path. An over-lush ballad with unearned soul, in other words. This is wrong. In fact, it couldn’t be wronger. Let’s listen.

Let’s start with the production, as ebullient and lush as anything Madonna or Blondie or, yes, Bobby Brown received during the time, its percussion like nails through a wall and its synths like bells ringing through puddles of glitter. The song sounds immaculate. (It’s also what tugs the track off the top tier, but this isn’t the time for that.)

Anyone could get that production, though. Not anybody could be Whitney. Yes, she begins the track with melisma — quite good melisma, the overjoyed sort. Yes, her singing is flawless. But let’s focus on something else: the way she deploys something else at the start: “I don’t know why I like you — I just do,” punctuating it halfway between a giddy exclamation and a period. It’s conversational. It’s spoken. It’s in no way virtuosic; if anything, it’s bemused. Then the track continues like that: “When you talk, I just watch your mouth.” “I remember the way we touched — I wish I didn’t like it so much.” And, of course, “I get so emotional,” the precise phrase you tend not to say when you’re enamored because it’s too real. Of course she doesn’t specify which emotions; there isn’t one subset, and even if there were how would you ever pick them out?

“So Emotional,” then, is the exact opposite of everything people ascribed to Whitney: absolutely listenable on it own, drenched in feeling that’s genuine, not put-upon. You want relevance? “Super Bass” wouldn’t exist without this. “Countdown” and “Love on Top” wouldn’t exist without this. They wouldn’t exist for the obvious reasons — Whitney Houston’s success enabled essentially everyone in R&B, pop and elsewhere today. But they also wouldn’t exist without such fantastic templates for joy. You can still hear these songs as they’re meant to be heard. Emotion works that way.

Edward Okulicz on “I’m Your Baby Tonight”

I get the feeling this track is as close to forgotten as a U.S. #1 could be, awkwardly placed in her history after she became a star, but before she evolved into the singer-actress supernova. Until Sunday, I’d never heard the original of it. For outside the U.S., single buyers got a remix of this that takes the new jack-ish, very Michael Jackson beats of the original, and replaces it with a disco-friendly Eurodance facade . Needless to say, I loved this single remix deeply and Whitney’s voice goes so well with both arrangements that I dare say a listener coming to the song without context would have a hard time working out which was the original. The biggest stars get the choicest cuts, and this track to me represents her best middle ground between dance dolly and soul diva by letting her smoulder on the verses, deliver the chorus with genuine desire and then throw in genuine erotic charge when she sings “you got a way that you’re makin’ me feel I can feel I can do any, do anything.” The song’s closed the deal with that bit of post-chorus euphoria and then the songwriters chucked in a brilliant half-shouted middle-eight on top of that to take the song to a level of ridiculous opulence, and Whitney attacks it with the abandon of someone untrained but in the moment, only her pipes are those of a goddess. It’s not even one of her bigger choruses, it’s more a sustained set of pleasurable moments.

Her first two albums were massive, so the stakes were high for this song, and Whitney carried the business of singing the song, and appearing every inch the biggest star on the planet during its promotion, with regal aplomb. The song itself works even better in the context of the video, where apart from adopting the guise of the Supremes (she’s all three, thank you very much), she also evokes Dietrich and Hepburn. She looks beautiful and glamorous as the former, and her joy as the latter overcomes the fact that unlike Madonna and Janet (who did similar dress-up in “Alright” and “Vogue”) she was not a dancer, and she moves as much like a dream as she sounds. Then she returns to her original guise as a big-haired biker chick, a silhouette dances in front of her before its sources jumps on her bike and they ride off, but you only see her grinning face. Moments where she gave little winks to the idea that she was vivacious and fun are how I’d like to remember Whitney, and “I’m Your Baby Tonight,” song and video, is packed with them.

Brad Shoup on “The Star-Spangled Banner” (Superbowl 1991)

During the 2005 Super Bowl, university researchers from Princeton and Harvard surveyed a group of fans watching the game on TV. The researchers found that the more someone thought about the game, the more likely the person was to believe his or her thoughts had an impact on the result. That year, the pre-game rendition of the American national anthem was delivered by choirs from four of the five military service academies. Midway through, Fox’s cameras spied Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Ike Reese on the sideline, softly singing along: hand over heart, eyes closed, head bowed, swaying from side to side.

When Whitney Houston sang the anthem fourteen years earlier, there were no cutaway shots of players. Operation Desert Storm — the aerial bombing of Iraqi military and civilian infrastructure — had commenced nine days prior; nearly six months before that, the U.S. had begun deploying troops to Saudi Arabia in a defensive countermove. The internationally-organized and implemented offensive to follow was, essentially, the highest-profile of an extensive series of Western interventions into the Middle East. As just one example, the U.S. government had spent the preceding decade — possibly until the opening month of Operation Desert Shield – supplying “dual-use” materials to Iraq, which included fabrication and guidance equipment for missiles, as well as chemical and biological agents purportedly for medical research.

The national memory’s slate was clean, however, as Houston took the stage in Tampa, Florida. To suggest that she was in any way an enlisted part of the U.S. military machine is ludicrous; our government’s experience with music stops at flushing out dictators and recognizing jazz musicians in dotage. She was the NFL’s selection. And as kickoff approached, the NFL was more than a little nervous.

In conceiving her take, Houston and producer Rickey Minor turned to Marvin Gaye’s 1983 performance of the Star-Spangled Banner at the NBA All-Star Game, generally regarded as the most baller of all anthem renditions. Accompanied by a drum machine, Gaye sang the anthem in 4/4 time, rather than its customary waltz time. Embellishing the antique melody with a series of his trademark loverman flourishes and pauses, Gaye completely remade the song in his image. For their version, Minor and Houston chose to include — in the phrasing of USA Today — “jazz chords and soulful gospel rhythms”.

To this day, I’ve never understood what that was supposed to mean. The arrangement, provided by the Florida Orchestra, is veritably Disney. The horn section, in particular, pokes out sheepishly from “whose broad stripes” onward, and is better suited for a one-for-the-road Hollywood closing scene. The strings are the very height of syrup, an opiate for the sight of 2,200 law enforcement officers and security experts on hand. (The official estimate of fans who could likely be saved in event of a nerve gas attack: fewer than 10,000.) Cymbals pair with brusque snare snaps, a punctuation in search of a highwire act.

Of course, if Whitney could do anything, it was aerial work. “The Star-Spangled Banner” is notoriously difficult to sing: the melody spans one and a half octaves. The syntax is unfamiliar; the words are devilishly easy to transpose. But by adding a beat to each measure, Minor allowed his singer to attack each phrase, rather than face the prospect of playing catch-up. It paid off quite well at “and the rockets’ red glare,” and also her windup into “O! say does…” Her exemplary pop chops and gospel background allow her to treat the whole text — not just the closing lines — as so much meat to be carved. The third and fourth lines, in particular, are given a hushed, actorly reading worthy of a church pageant, if you ignore the post-orgasmic bliss in her treatment of “through the perilous fight”. (Not that America really gave much thought to peril in what was soon nicknamed “the video-game war”.) If a couple of peculiar choices were made (such as the butch, bathetic reading of gleaming/streaming), they can be chalked up to the exigencies of the composition.

What would not be — could not be — ascribed to Whitney is a shaky performance. As is regular industry practice, Houston pre-recorded her rendition on the day of the Super Bowl — in California, in fact. Whatever spooked the NFL executives who heard her take (accounts differ: they may have thought it too bombastic for wartime, or had objections to the arrangement), it was not enough to convince Houston to re-record it. Standing at midfield, wearing a white tracksuit with matching headband, she put on a lip-synching masterclass. She began with her hands behind her back, held at waist level. As the cameras show us officers at attention, servicemen properly holding state flags, and spectators waving American flags both personal and full-sized, we also see Whitney, her eyes keenly moving about, taking in the whole scene. By the climax of the song, her countenance has transformed: eyes closed, head back, arms out. When she reaches the word “brave” (stretching it into three equal tones), she stares to her left on the first beat, raises her right fist on the second, and sends up the left on her third. The four-jet flyover to follow was as superfluous as you’d imagine.

It was just the rally the nation needed in order to crush a poorly-armed and misgoverned antagonist. All those hopeful thoughts made impact: one month and thousands of cassingles later, the Gulf War had concluded. Iraq was out of Kuwait, we were still in Saudi Arabia, and Saddam Hussein remained in power. Ten years onward, Houston’s Star-Spangled Banner gained a second life, making it to Number 6 in a post-September 11 re-release. However you wish to define ritual — a means of reinforcing cultural values and norms, a passage between social states, a repetitive behavior chosen to relieve anxiety — it seems Houston’s display of technical ecstasy has met the national criteria. Football, jingoism, the resources of a major label: only one of these supplies is in danger of vanishing.

Jonathan Bogart on “I Will Always Love You”

What David Foster, Clive Davis, Whitney Houston and (apparently) Kevin Costner did to Dolly Parton’s plaintive country song is comparable to an opera composer taking a folk tune as the basis for his soprano’s big aria: a cottage redesigned on a cathedral scale. (Though spare a thought for Linda Rondstadt, whose grandiose pop version laid the architectural foundation.) It’s not a replacement of the original, but an expression of its thought in a different genre, one that isn’t perhaps to everyone’s taste: who wants to live in a cathedral? But equally, who doesn’t feel a twinge of awe on entering one? The scope, the dramatic scale of Houston’s rendition, from the quiet, almost whispered a capella opening to the colossal moment of freefall just before the last chorus, whereupon her voice hits like Superman catching you in his arms, more power and strength than you thought possible, is unlike anything else in American pop, and became the legendary brass ring of grandiose pop productions, often challenged and never equaled. Even the exhaustion those of us who remember 1992 can feel when those familiar chords stir up again doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with the song, or with the recording: it’s just that two decades of dentist’s waiting rooms and supermarket checkouts and afternoon drive times have drawn its potency; such grandeur deserves to be heard in its full operatic context, as the epic, holy-flame act of renunciation/defiance/self-immolation that it is. Her voice turns almost harsh, holding out those long vibrato notes. Look upon her and despair; or at least wish to holy hell you were Kevin Costner during those few months of shooting.

Brad Shoup on “I Will Always Love You”

I mean, what else can you do but laugh? When the drumslap rings, when the key change hits, tell me: how should the reaction be? Houston’s effortless mountaintop promise comes on like a new acquaintance trying to shake both your hands at once. Her astounding ability to return to the same ringing, held note is why we still have Green Day, contract extensions for Andy Reid, and Jim Downey writing sketches where the politician addresses the camera. It’s the cult of competence. Whitney was frequently a bishop in this order, at least after a run of airtight dance-pop and ballads that actually feinted toward cohesion.

“I Will Always Love You” is one of a select group of truly international hits: a lightning bolt of distribution and cross-promotion that struck territory after territory. And though I usually indulge greedily in the liturgy of chart feats, this particular song just gets me thinking about all the imperfect little voices it must have frightened. The cold expanding universe of “I Will Always Love You” pushes Heather Lewis, Doc Corbin Dart, and the Children of Sunshine even further out.

This isn’t a shot at major-label pop as such, or Whitney Houston as a performer, or talent as a laudable concept. It’s about a particular pop megalith, and its evergreen warning that to be good is fine, but to be human is best. Better to convey feeling than demand response. At most, “I Will Always Love You” is cultural comfort food: easily attainable, quickly filling. But the wonderful thing about music is that you can find your nourishment at the bottom of the ocean, or in the next room over. And before she died, Houston left a whole house worth exploring.

Jonathan Bogart on “I Have Nothing”

“Take my love, I’ll never ask for too much/Just all that you are and everything that you do” isn’t the sort of demand pop stars usually make; it’s the sort of demand demented Brontëan lovers make, or unattainable goddesses, or totalitarian dictators. The miracle of Whitney — by which I mean not the flesh and blood woman, ever more unknowable as she recedes with astonishing swiftness into history, but the collection of sound and image that we took for her – was that she was all three at once, stormily melodramatic (all those melismatic runs and portentous pauses and glass-shattering breves could strike the emotionally uninvested listener as extremely silly), inhumanly perfect in both body (or immaculately made-up, gowned, styled, lit, and photographed image) and in voice (or immaculately masked, reverbed, microphoned, arranged, and recorded sound), and the arbiter of existence; everything happens according to her meticulously planned whim. The great yawning cliffs of melody which she scales as effortlessly as a long jumper defying gravity on a mountaintop, the little sobbing catch in her voice when she sings “I don’t wanna hurt anymore,” the MASSIVE KEY CHANGE that turns the song into almost a parody of Big Belting Ballads (but cf. Poe’s Law) — it is ruthlessly planned and executed, until the towering need of the lyrics begins to take your breath away. Someone who hurt and hungered so much, on so vast a scale – is it any wonder that… but speculation will not do. Better to listen to the final notes of the song, where, as in “I Will Always Love You,” she coos ethereally in the wake of the storm, letting us down gently. From here, we’ll have to go on without her.

Kat Stevens on “Queen of The Night”

Whitney was my unlikely tutor in the world of dance remixes. 1993 was full of them, especially exhumed disco tracks with cheap piano chords and a hip-wiggling bassline tacked on (for years I thought that this was the sort of music that ‘funky house’ referred to). The CJ Mackintosh mix of “Queen of the Night” fitted in perfectly with UK commercial radio playlists and consequently with me as well. Despite my resentment of Whitney’s seemingly-endless ballad regime over the previous six months, I decided to spend my pocket money on “Queen of the Night”, clueless about the original version. I was gobsmacked when the first track roared out of the living room speakers: fierce armour-plated mechanical rock music! Totally unsuitable for middle-aged women to dance around their handbags to. No wonder Capital FM had shied away from it. Luckily, I had bought it on CD (Our Price didn’t have it on cassingle) and CJ Mack was present and correct on track 3. Phew! It seemed unbelievable that either track could be made by the same woman who sang “I Will Always Love You,” let alone come from the same album. But Whitney’s voice clearly had enough power to tackle anything and everything.

Jer Fairall on “Exhale (Shoop Shoop)”

I spent far more of Whitney Houston’s career disliking her than I spent rightfully appreciating the most undeniable aspects of her talent, waging (unconsciously or not) a war of substance over style that myopically ignored the importance of style in pop music, the area where it is arguably most valuable. Yet it was Whitney’s particular style that bristled uncomfortably against my own (again, often myopic) sensibilities at every crucial stage of her career. My first memory of Whitney is one of my parents amused embarrassment at having each purchased a copy of Whitney Houston on two separate simultaneous shopping trips; that the album never became one of the most heavily played in the house during that time stands as its own testament to the fact that, circa 1986, owning a copy of Whitney Houston was practically mandated. From the beginning she struck me as an oppressively adult artist, the pop equivalent of eating broccoli flavored ice cream, lacking the crucial seriousness and authority of someone like Dylan (whose first Greatest Hits volume I was eating up a couple short years later) yet bereft of the dazzling novelty of MJ or Madonna.

If Whitney was fighting an uphill battle for my attention during my elementary school years, she stood absolutely no chance during my high school ones, not as the Bodyguard era synced up neatly with my newfound Prince obsession, and certainly not later when I began dabbling in the labyrinthine underworld of 90s indie rock. By then, Whitney was somehow even more establishment than she was previously, ushering in the (for me) dreaded era of Mariah and Celine and typifying, with each vanity movie role and awards show appearance, the bland conservatism of the industry that my heroes railed (at least in my perception) so artfully against. Her public meltdown in the coming years would only serve, for me, to uncover the hypocrisy of the guardians of good taste against whatever it was that I was praising at the time, the revelation that Whitney was no better than all of the demented freaks that you philistines regularly cross the street to avoid.

Somewhere in the middle of all this is “Exhale,” a trifle of a song that I doubt even Whitney diehards consider essential. It has been suggested, in the mass of stuff I’ve read about Whitney over the past couple of days, that “Exhale” represents an anomaly in her catalogue as the rare case when Whitney isn’t poised as the explicit subject of her song; note that even Inspirational anthems like “The Greatest Love of All” and “One Moment In Time” contain a mass of “I”’s and “me”’s. It was something of an anomaly for me as well. In retrospect, perhaps I was responding to the rare generosity of the song’s sentiment, an ode to friendship at a time when I, despite external protestations to the contrary, was desperate for companionship of any kind. Or maybe this soft pillow of a track, with its chorus a gentle lullaby of near baby-talk, offered a temporary calming salve against the noise of the 90s, of high school, of Whitney’s own melismatic offspring, even, placed squarely in the center of all of it. All I know is that, for its few months of ubiquity in late 1995 and early 1996 (and it speaks volumes on Whitney’s dominance when even her minor singles were able to manage a few months of omnipresence), whenever I heard “Exhale” on the radio, my immediate impulse was never to turn it off. And that, at the time, was possibly the biggest compliment I was able to pay Whitney Houston.

Anthony Easton on “I Believe In You And Me”

Eleven Things About Whitney’s “I Believe In You and Me”:

1. This is a song that comes from text that had an explicit church context, and so the song and the film collapsed the preacher and the husband in fairly conventional ways.

2. This being between the lover and the Lord is very much part of Whitney’s inheritance — there was Dionne Warwick on one side, Cissy Houston on the other, and Aretha pushing up through the middle.

3. The interesting thing about this tension is that it is very rare that Whitney ever gave us full church — but it was not a rejection of the church, or an attempt to make secular through sex and longing the incorporation found in traditional black churches.

4. Houston’s best work is not the rejection of the church, it was an almost refusal of incorporation itself.

5. Her voice is perfect. Her body is perfect. Recall that famous Oprah interview where she suggests “the hair, the gowns, the performance” got in the way of an authentic voice — and what is assumed is that the voice would have the sweat of Sunday morning or Saturday night — and in her best performances Whitney doesn’t sweat. Oprah, in her continual claim for an authenticity that might or might not exist, refused to acknowledge the hermetic seeking of perfection is as good as those two sweat boxes.

6. She brings in melodrama, and there are stories about the filming of The Preacher’s Wife: of Denzel being angry, about showing up past 3pm for 8am calls, of her not knowing her lines, of calling in Cissy to talk sense into her. For all of this mess, that was perhaps the first indication that we had that there was a pre-cocaine and a post-cocaine Whitney — that her stainless steel voice could tarnish.

7. You cannot see the trauma of the performance in the mediocre movie — a rehash of something that might have been too sentimental in the 70s, but even in this. For a song about crisis, longing, needing—it has the simulacrum of longing, but the scratch or hunger of it.

8. One of my favorite things in Christian pop music, is where you are trying to figure out if they are talking about Jesus or lover, or constructing Jesus as lover inadvertently. This is not a Jesus-as-boyfriend song; for a song in a movie called The Preacher’s Wife, one would actually expect it to be more about Jesus.

9. What is it about? It is not really about the boyfriend either; though from the breathy first moments, and the call for eternal devotion, can it be anything but a boyfriend song? She even talks about love!

10. The song is about Whitney’s singing, the song is a perfect showcase for everything that she can do with her voice” with the sheen, with the perfection of tone, with something more than Jesus or a lover. How the whole song opens into pure blue when she sings sea; or the Cathedral swoops when she sings “miracle” or “dream” or even “believe.” The tightness of the first chords, and then how that tightness explodes, further, wider, but never wild, and almost robotic.

11. There are genuine Jesus songs that she has done, even songs on this soundtrack; and there is the odd song that sounds like she might have gotten laid — though nothing as wonderfully, filthy as the sex she hinted she was having with Bobby — but the best thing about Whitney was the marshaling of full and uncanny gifts to give operatic power to statements that were mostly clichéd — that the marshaling resulted in high art and low kitsch, but did not result in Christian idolatry was perhaps her unique gift (or maybe not unique — but it meant that she shared more with Grace Jones and Donna Summer than she shared with her mother and aunt).

Michaela Drapes on “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay”

The great mythos of pop demands that songs such as these are delivered only when there’s no question of authenticity. Without that veracity, it’s just a hollow complaint; add the realness of tabloid-fodder backstory and suddenly it’s a potent (and, in the case of the Thunderpuss remix, explosive) blend of resignation, ruefulness, and triumph. The thing is, this song isn’t for him, the one who’s broken the promises, the one who wasn’t “down for Whitney”. No, this is a talisman against that weakness, that indelible thing that kept pulling her back and back and back. The thing that wouldn’t let her go and be free. No, it wasn’t ever really about him, and this is the moment she finally sees it, clearly — but still needs to convince herself that turning her back on it all the best thing to do. And no, isn’t fair; it never is. But happiness is more important, Whitney tells us. If only we could believe it, too.

Alex Ostroff on “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay” (Thunderpuss Club Mix)

I somehow hadn’t heard the original version of “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay” until recently – the Thunderpuss Club Mix was what blanketed the radio when I was twelve and just tuning into pop music, and was my first exposure to Whitney. I appreciate a lot of her earlier material much in the same way I do Celine’s. I can’t always connect emotionally with their songs, but the sheer force, power and pristine quality of their vocals impress me. Of course, that’s the entire point — the effort of Whitney’s performance signifies her emotions more than it conveys them. By “It’s Not Right,” Whitney had just enough grain in her voice to signify approachable and pained in a way that my ears were trained to understand. The Thunderpuss Mix takes that pain and transforms Whitney into the house diva that she never got to be on her own records. The centerpiece of the track is seven minutes in, her cry of “you were making a fool of me” impossibly extended — the voice’s perseverance and The Voice’s perseverance
stretched as far as they can go.

John Seroff on “Million Dollar Bill”

I think of myself as a Whitney Houston fan in the way that everyone of my generation was a Whitney Houston fan; we breathed, we slept, we listened to Whitney. The production and the material was often questionable but the talent was not. It’s understandably hard for the under-thirties to believe, but in the days before the reality shows, the addiction and the slow decline to disconnect, Whitney was more or less an industry unto herself. Ubiquity made her impact in even small and unforeseen ways unavoidable; I recall watching her on Friday Night Videos and feeling the first plucks of heterosexual awakening. In the wake of Whitney’s passing, I was drawn immediately to her parting shot, her last charting single (for the moment at least) “Million Dollar Bill”. I covered the song on the Jukebox some time back and though my enjoyment of it remains unchecked, listening to it alongside the big hits is a sobering experience. You would be hard pressed to convince anyone listening to “Bill” and “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” that these are the same vocalist. By ’09 the voice was irredeemably gone but, even so, her timing and emotion manage to shine through. “Million Dollar Bill” feels earned; it is a statement that, even without the showy plumage, Whitney understood desire and pain and soul on the gut level and knew how to communicate those emotions simply, but with panache. Even at her lowest ebb, she never forgot how to fully articulate the sadness and joys of life through a silly pop song. It’s hard to imagine a future where Whitney would’ve recovered her well-being, her tone, reclimbed the impossible mountain of past success, ceased being a punchline. It’s terribly sad that she wasn’t granted the opportunity to prove us all wrong.

9 Responses to “Whitney Houston”

  1. Well said, everyone.

  2. I’m one of John’s under-thirties and unfamiliar with almost all of her songs. Reading these (I haven’t gone through all of them yet, but I will) is making me even keener to change that. I’ve made a Spotify playlist of all of the songs covered in this post as my starting point. Posting it here for anyone else who has Spotify and wants to use it as an accompaniment to this post.

  3. This doesn’t contradict what Alfred said (“expert rendition of adult feeling”), but Hopper was something like 19 when he wrote “Memories.”

  4. There’s some great writing here; I’m really proud to be on the same page.

  5. Hear, hear. Nicely done, all.

  6. When I first heard “Memories,” soon after the album came out, I had no idea who she was, but there was a sense of foreboding, and the sound of somebody very young who might just as well sing along with that disquieting voice (doesn’t quite sound like Lou, but who?), “Look out, the world’s behind you”–on “Sunday Morning,” the first track of the Velvet Underground’s first LP. Awake far too early, and none too soon. The first note of Shepp’s solo seems too much, and what’s that artsy kitchen percussion for? But the singer and the song carry on, brushing me with a little chill. I’m up like that fairly often now, but I’m not really a morning person either, Whitney.

  7. Shepp carries on too, after the first note, and he can’t shake the breeze either.

  8. Shit, I am such a doof- I hadn’t realised the deadline for this had passed.

  9. I have really been missing out by not having “Memories” or “So Emotional” in my life!