This isn’t a tribute exactly. I’m not the biggest Whitney Houston fan in the world and when my beloved Michael and Amy died I didn’t write much of anything here. But I’m not in the habit of throwing babies out with bathwater. I love pop music and that genre more than any comes one song at a time. By my reckoning, after a thirty year recording career, Whitney Houston left us with twenty good songs, ten of which I’d classify as great.
The obituaries, as they often do, have polarised into deeply uncritical and unfairly dismissive. It’s true that there were none more middle-of-the-road than Whitney; that she propelled one of the worst cover versions ever into record-breaking musical history; and that the compositions she was given were often anodyne but that vocally she was often too much, and neither side won out. Such high-octane singing can feel like caterwauling over an entire album. Any advances she made in pop (the first Black woman to break the unofficial MTV colour bar; the record-breaking run of number one singles) were done through sheer force of popularity (and timing) rather than masterplans or charisma.
You might be wondering what it is I want to say that’s positive about Whitney Houston. Firstly there are those songs and the knowledge that nobody else could have delivered them quite the way she did. A retrospective of the 1980s is incomplete without acknowledging that incredible run of singles; seven Number Ones in a row when singles were at their height, more than The Beatles or the Bee Gees achieved over a longer period (she managed it in less than three years). Secondly there is the fact that she did it all without having to constantly foreground herself as a sex object. This isn’t a hitherto unseen streak of conservatism on my part, only to say that for everyone from Kylie to Britney to Janet to Beyonce this line of ‘marketing’ no longer seemed like a career option, it seemed like an obligation. Whitney never succumbed, despite being an ex-model and patently the most beautiful woman of her generation.
My final point might sound like criticism but isn’t. Whitney Houston didn’t make soul music. She said so herself: ‘My life doesn’t go on record, my voice does.’ Nobody could touch her for technical proficiency, but proficiency can’t compete with the ability to put you in the moment, in the pain, in the life behind the voice. Nina Simone did more of that in one album than Whitney did in three decades, but that simply wasn’t Whitney’s stock-in-trade, and it’s a position I’d like to defend.
Whitney’s music was rarely considered ‘soulful’ enough for the traditional genre categories that were offered to Black women. More often she would fall into the ‘pop’ category of the big music awards but in doing so she helped to open up that most vital category to Black women who thereafter didn’t have to be confined by genre labels that subtly relegated Black music away from the mainstream. If egregiously over-bearing white women like Celine Dion are able to make a career out of over-blown sentiment and roof-raising power-pop with nothing more genuine than volume on their side, I think that particular career option ought to be open to Black women too. It is now, and that’s because of Whitney Houston. In short, not every Black performer has to make soul music, so if you’re going to stray away from those shores you might as well have seven Number One singles in a row while you’re doing it.
Pretty much every point I want to make is in this video. It’s a live version of her first (and to my mind, best) Number One single, ‘Saving All My Love For You’. It’s a more jazz-inflected cut than the one that made the album, and I think it’s better for it. The voice isn’t in competition with anything, it dances around the notes in a way that she barely got chance to do after this point. The song is a daring number about being the unapologetic other woman. Whitney is young and sophisticated. It’s a gorgeous performance. Then when Joan Rivers asks her, ‘Who are you thinking about when you sing a song like that?’, Whitney replies, ‘Just people in general.’ For a girl raised on gospel, and a godly woman until she died (much good did it do her), she might simply have thought that you saved your soul for church, and the rest was just business.