For all its earth-shaking power, Whitney Houston’s voice could sometimes become an artistic weakness: Even on her most emotionally intense songs, her vocal infallibility could make her seem unapproachable, inhuman. In the wake of her death, fans rushed to the Internet seeking intimacy with the great diva, making a viral hit out of an a cappella version of “How Will I Know” that lays bare the joy and soul behind her virtuosic style. Two years later, Whitney Houston Live: Her Greatest Performances promises another opportunity to get closer to that impenetrable colossus of a voice, but one glance at the tracklisting reveals the motives of a greedy record company with only the most superficial comprehension of the artist’s legacy.
Any fan can tell you there are enough awe-inspiring Whitney performances on YouTube to produce a live album of vigor and spontaneity, on par with R&B classics like Donny Hathaway Live or Aretha Live at Fillmore West. What we get instead is an overly candid chronicle of a brilliant singer’s shaky vocal development and ultimate decline. The earliest recording here, a pre-stardom take on the Wiz number “Home” on The Merv Griffin Show, captures a 19-year-old who had yet to develop her own sound, and whose delivery was marred by affected vibrato and Broadway elocution. The final two tracks—a 2004 performance of “I Believe in You and Me” and her 2009 comeback ballad “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength”—are inexplicable inclusions that emphasize how unrelenting her descent was in the final decade of her life. Robbed of its lustrous agility, Whitney’s damaged voice didn’t become more emotionally evocative (in the manner of late Billie Holiday or Joni Mitchell), but less: As if in mourning over the loss of her gift, she stumbles through these songs as if she would rather be doing anything else.
Boasting some of the most technically demanding material in pop music, Whitney’s catalogue can be unforgiving on stage. The original takes of the Bodyguard hits “I Will Always Love You” and “I’m Every Woman” are perfectly designed to foreground each and every vocal astonishment, but the live versions here (both recorded at a 1994 concert in South Africa) demonstrate a husky-toned, slightly off-pitch Whitney making compromises around the songs’ most difficult moments. Over the course of 16 tracks, the album highlights her inconsistency as a stage act, and while there’s certainly some value in locating the cracks in a voice that’s long been obscured by its own mythology, it’s baffling when you take stock of the breathtaking material that’s been passed over: for instance, her flawless take on the gospel song “A Quiet Place,” broadcast in 1985; her gorgeous mashup of “All the Man That I Need,” “Lover Man,” and “My Man” at the 1991 Billboard Awards; and her ferocious rendition of “Why Does It Hurt So Bad” at the 1996 MTV Movie Awards.
But just as the difficulty of her repertoire could be her Achilles’ heel, a strong challenge could also sometimes lead to triumph. Whitney Houston Live has the good sense to include two immortal performances that flaunt not only the singer’s musical talent, but also her ability to play off the anticipation and adoration of her audience. Starting out slow and delicate, Whitney’s 1991 interpretation of the Leon Russell classic “A Song for You” is a master class in dynamics, building to a climax of operatic intensity without ever losing its exquisite sense of control and containment. On the opposite end of the spectrum, her seven-minute medley of “I Loves You, Porgy,” “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” and “I Have Nothing” at the 1994 American Music Awards is a brassy and unbridled act of indulgence, full of grand gestures and pauses for applause. The myth of her perfection may make her studio work definitive, but at the height of her powers, Whitney was an artist born for the stage, where her voice could pour forth unrestrained by the limits of a booth.