A couple days had passed since Whitney Houston died, and I was still flipping through the channels looking for her name. If the grotesquely ironic circumstances of her death already seemed banal within a few hours of the news sinking in (thanks in large part to cable TV’s dependably crass repetition of the details), what was it I was still looking for? Some critic or musical collaborator who might confirm her genius and validate my fascination? The gratification of seeing my fan-grief shoved down everyone else’s throats? It seems right to be self-deprecating and embarrassed about my inability to let go of that voice booming out of my speakers, her beautiful image on the TV screen—as I know I must now that this weeklong coverage is mercifully over. But upon learning of her death, my reaction was similar to what Frank O’Hara described in his great roundabout elegy to Billie Holiday: However briefly, I started sweating and stopped breathing.
Some time in middle school, almost 15 years ago, I went from being a die-hard Whitney fan to feeling more or less indifferent toward her music. At my most rabid I was saving up allowance money to buy all of her singles, scrounging the Internet for bootleg video tapes, and engaging in inane debates with other online fans about whether “I Will Always Love You” or “I Have Nothing” was the more challenging song to sing. But for those of us who didn’t have access to her increasingly strained TV performances, 1998’s My Love Is Your Love—her fourth full-length studio album, and her first in eight years—was surprising not so much for its hip-hop flavor or clever hit singles, but for the fatigue in her voice. Each new spin made it harder to ignore that her ad-libbing had become less dexterous, her belting dimmer and scratchier. She remained as strong as any other pop vocalist of the moment, but her sound was no longer thrilling, let alone transporting—so I just gave her up. As early as then, I had also become aware of a hierarchy of taste that dictated that real music was to be found in neo-soul or, better yet, old Stax and Motown records. When serious critics deigned to write on Whitney at length, they usually parroted the same assumption: that she was commercial fluff, the main progenitor of a kind of vocal excess that now stood for inauthenticity.
“If somebody loves you,” Whitney once sang, “won’t they always love you?” During her long period away from music in the last decade, I didn’t feel invested enough to be curious about or even stung by her public implosion. But I caught up with it as I followed the campaign for her 2009 comeback album, I Look to You, and I started thinking about her again, about how when you’re seven years old and you hear a voice like hers belting out “And I-eee-I…” through the family car speakers, you don’t censor your response. You have no way of knowing that this level of athletic singing, its technical perfection as well as its believability, would become extraordinarily rare in pop music 20 years later, despite the advancement of pitch-correction technology. You’re not aware of how many records she’s selling, the racial barriers she was groomed to break, or the frequent claim that she’s insufficiently black. Instead you just think, “I want to hear that again,” or foolishly, “I want to sound like that too.” Contemplating her for the first time as an adult, I couldn’t decide whether I was still secretly passionate about her voice, or if it was the memory of having had this first musical love that was making me so sentimental about her purported sobriety, the warmth and charm she showed in the Oprah interview, and the new album’s valiant attempt to put her sandpapery voice back to work.
A cursory look through YouTube reveals that good singers are a dime a dozen in this country, that there are even unsigned talents capable of hitting notes Whitney couldn’t. So how significant is it that she, almost right out of the gate, was nicknamed “The Voice,” a Stradivarius among ordinary violins? The regal title emerged with its own context, at a time when female R&B was ruled by aphrodisiac altos like Anita Baker and Phyllis Hyman, slightly over a decade after Aretha Franklin and Chaka Khan had fully asserted their genius. Both Franklin and Khan were close to the Houston family, and as singers known for cutting deep, they provided an obvious blueprint. Their influence is felt in the one technique that came to symbolize Whitney’s mastery: her sumptuous belting register. Pre-Aretha, it’s difficult to name a pop hit in which the vocalist repeatedly swoops up to fifth-octave G’s and A’s (and beyond) in chest voice, not growling the note, but hitting it with blinding brightness and clarity. As daring as John Coltrane experimenting with atonality, the squalling soul diva risks sounding too unhinged for mainstream radio. Whitney was born of a church tradition that had trained her for this aggressive style, but in the end what made her so universally palatable was her knack for harnessing the intensity of Aretha while also letting the ear-caressing tones of quiet storm share the foreground.
Low to high, Whitney’s timbre was so clean that when she did sustain a note at the very top of her chest range (for instance, in the climactic moments of “I’m Every Woman”), there was none of that danger, that premonition of something about to snap, so integral to the drama of deep-soul testimony. Such was the nature of her seductiveness that, during the span of time you were listening to her, she sounded definitive, a perfect machine of sound, a Total Voice. This enabled her to appear before us seemingly unburdened by the tumultuous history into which she was born or the archetype of the tortured blues woman. Aretha had cried “freedom,” but Whitney, even at her most impassioned, gave the impression she didn’t know she was ever not free. The way her image muffled her political significance made it easier for non-black singers to mimic her without being accused of cultural theft, and the following decade witnessed an accelerated de-racialization of African-American vocal tradition. The shift has been so complete that virtually every new female pop star expecting mass acclaim for her instrument must now be equipped with an arsenal of techniques that a few decades ago would have marked her as too “soul,” too “urban,” too black for the white audience.
The myth of “The Voice” emphasizes how natural it all was for Whitney and how easy she made it look, but that’s not quite true to who she was as a performer. The labor of singing was not only apparent in her body language, it was also what made her such a presence on stage. On high notes she would tilt her head back, exposing her swan neck and the musculature rushing in to produce all that volume. Leaps into her silvery head voice were punctuated with a closing of the eyes, a wiggle of the fingers. Her faults as a stylist were sometimes on display: Out of what might have been boredom with her original recorded interpretation of a song, she would start lagging a little too lazily behind the beat, or linger agonizingly over one phrase before dispensing impatiently with the next. By the Bodyguard period, her vocal peak, she had brought her live act to an exhilarating level of cockiness, pumping her arms up and down like her own conductor, smiling mischievously before a key change.
Perhaps Whitney exhausted all her interest in the power ballad on those Bodyguard songs. She never cut another adult-contemporary track as blatantly ambitious as “I Will Always Love You,” “I Have Nothing,” or “Run to You,” songs as ludicrous as they are sublime, each arranged (by shlockmeister David Foster) as a series of increasingly intimidating vocal hurdles threatening to break the singer’s cool. Those colossal productions obscured the seductress on forgotten gems like Whitney Houston’s “Thinking About You,” Whitney’s “Just the Lonely Talking Again,” and I’m Your Baby Tonight’s “I Belong to You”—irresistible confections that make you want to forget how much trash she wasted her gift on. The general color-blindness of The Bodyguard was followed by projects that appealed specifically to black audiences, the first of which, Waiting to Exhale, includes her greatest vocal performance. Rejecting the grandiosity of her preceding singles, the Babyface-penned “Exhale (Shoop Shoop)” is strung together from delicate gestures and half-assed wisdom. At the choruses, Whitney’s lead is subdued by the background vocals, the same cooed phrases circling again and again around some unmentionable grief. When the bridge swells up to the song’s one big note, it feels like it’s over before it even started; the singer’s come up for air, now she’s diving back in. Fitting for an artist who wasn’t much of a musical rebel, Whitney found her most convincing soul voice singing about emotional resignation and the banality of pain.
If we were to gather up all such instances where the material was working for Whitney’s greatness rather than against it, we might not be able to fill half of a CD. Still, I’ve been surprised that the appraisals of Whitney’s career this past week have felt so bizarrely detached. Is it because music critics can’t bring themselves to wade through all that mediocrity? Or because we don’t like to make personal, unironic testimonies about how pop music has changed our lives? Well, here’s mine: Seven years ago, I came out to my parents, things didn’t go so well, and despite no longer considering myself a Whitney fan, I found myself digging up one of her songs I’d loved as a kid. Probably the first piece of black gospel we listened to seriously in my Catholic household, “I Love the Lord” features Whitney riffing up a storm alongside the Georgia Mass Choir, revealing a spontaneity you don’t hear in her secular work. Her solo intro begins soft, fluttery, with spare piano accompaniment. Then, several measures in, on the first syllable of the word “troubles,” she unleashes one of her rafter-shaking belts before sliding back to a quavering near-whisper. That one note had a heft and solidity that straightened my back and blasted through my self-pity. It made me feel ridiculous and powerful at the same time. And for me, that’s what the absurd miracle of American popular music boils down to: one ear, one voice, communing in that single fleeting moment.