Explaining to the uninitiated in the future how incredible a voice Whitney Houston had may merely require noting that she never had to dress up as a French whore to get the watchers of her videos to listen to her songs. Donning a meat garment to grab an audience’s attention wasn’t her style. Fame arrived without resorting to primping as a pig-tailed Catholic schoolgirl. All Whitney Houston had to do was sing, which is strangely no longer a prerequisite for becoming a singer.
Whitney Houston died on Saturday at 48. She was apparently found in the bathtub of her hotel room alongside a trove of pharmaceuticals, among them Lorazepam, Valium, and Xanax. Unlike their peers in sports, musicians prefer performance inhibiting drugs to performance enhancing ones. Houston’s long decline of bizarre behavior and haggard appearance followed by death is a replay of the dying days of Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse, and so many other megastars. They all violated the show business rule of leaving the audience wanting more rather than less. Nobody preferred fat, sweaty, slurry Elvis, and nobody liked seeing the glassy-eyed, disheveled Whitney. We want our kings kingly and our divas divine.
Her death may have been a music-industry cliché. Her career was anything but. Houston recorded eleven number one singles. Foremost among these was the monster hit “I Will Always Love You,” which spent a record fourteen weeks atop the charts. She set a record by placing seven consecutive songs atop Billboard‘s chart. Her eponymous first album was then the bestselling debut by a female artist.
Her musical alchemy transformed the songs of others into her cultural property. Great covers, such as The Beatles’ “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” or Van Halen’s “(Oh) Pretty Woman,” add something to but rarely eclipse the original. Does anybody today even identify “I Will Always Love You” as a Dolly Parton number or remember that “The Greatest Love of All” originally predated Houston in a film made about Muhammad Ali’s life? Even “The Star Spangled Banner” became a Whitney song, with her rendition at the 1991 Super Bowl becoming the benchmark performance by which to judge all others. That she could turn the national anthem, an obligatory number set to a recycled tune, into a top-40 hit attests to the power of her voice.
Houston’s death on the eve of the Grammys, where she picked up six awards over her career, was seen as symbolism of some sort. “It’s her favorite night of the year,” Clive Davis said of his annual pre-show industry party on Saturday night, so “who knows by the end of the evening” if she would perform. But she would be dead before the evening had started.
But the real symbolism wasn’t dying on the eve of the Grammys but doing so at the close of a week that began with the buzz over Madonna’s Super Bowl halftime show. Rosie O’Donnell tweeted, “Madonna=perfection.” Ryan Seacrest fawned that “she nailed it.” But the most perceptive reaction came from (Who else?) Paris Hilton, who declared: “That was one of the best halftime shows I’ve ever seen.” When you see music, it’s not really music.
Complete with a tight-rope walker, Roman/Egyptian/Viking costumes, and gymnast dancers who rivaled the athleticism of the players on the field, the Super Bowl performance certainly was a spectacle. But spectacles are for the eyes, which tricked our ears. The lip-synched extravaganza was a metaphor for the music industry, particularly as it pertains to female songstresses. The visual makes the aural insignificant. Piped-in music and Autotune make the gauge of a performance how well the performer distracts the audience from the fact that they’re not listening to live music. That nobody seems to have noticed that Madonna faked her vocals makes her an amazing performer of some sort.
The music industry follows the Madonna rather than the Whitney model in manufacturing pop princesses. Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, and Nikki Minaj do image over audio. Adele and Kelly Clarkson, like Houston, experience success without sluttishness. But they are the exceptions that prove the rule.
Whitney Houston recalled a time when singers sang. Whatever the reality of her private hell, her stage persona projected grace, class, and a strength that emanated from her soul rather than from her cleavage. This wasn’t because she lacked physical beauty. She just knew that sex gimmicks would have diverted attention away from her voice, which is precisely why Madonna, Paula Abdul, and so many of Houston’s contemporaries used them.
The “singer” is dead. So, unfortunately, is this singer.