The journal of a Kentucky culture vulture
Whitney Houston made children of the 1980s do something we weren’t used to: listen to a voice.
Whether you were into hair metal bands, European-influenced new wave or the emerging hip hop genre, Reagan-era music was more about styles than skills. And even with Houston, the style was the first thing we noticed. In the heyday of early MTV, it was her super cute 1985 video for How Will I Know, which played on her model resume and her charm, that caught our eyes.
But soon, with songs like Saving All My Love for You and You Give Good Love, we were starting to hear the voice of a generation, not in an a Dylan-esque way, but in a musically-influential way.
Houston, who died Saturday at age 48, soon gave us pop-vocal classics such as The Greatest Love of All (1986) and I Will Always Love You (1992). She set the stage for vocalists such Mariah Carey and Céline Dion to ascend the pop charts, for good and ill. Certainly some of the music of the Diva era has been marked by songs that relied more on vocal theatrics and over-reliance on techniques such as melisma, holding a single syllable between a series of notes, than great songwriting or artistic expression.
But Houston would not have risen as far as she did or given us some of the moments she has without pure artistry, and it was in her genes. She was the daughter of soul singer Cissy Houston and Dion Warwick was a cousin. Her godmother was Aretha Franklin. If she had the pipes, there was going to be a way for her to succeed in pop music, and she did.
Few were her equal delivering a love song in the late ’80s as many fell in love with that voice.
Like Michael Jackson when he died in 2009, Houston’s legacy may be somewhat lost on younger music fans that didn’t live it. Drug use and a tumultuous marriage to Bobby Brown ravaged her public image and made her the subject of ridicule like derisive Saturday Night Live skits. Houston was yet another cautionary tale that no matter how high your star rises, the trappings of fame can bring you low.
But when you turn on a talent search show like American Idol or The Voice, to a certain extent, we are on the hunt for another Whitney Houston, whose hits occasionally show up on those shows for a reason. And those recordings stop us when they come on the radio. Every time we watch a national anthem performance at a major sporting event, we are reminded that Houston set the standard for contemporary Star-Spangled Banners at the 1991 Super Bowl, rousing a nation in the early days of the first Gulf War. That rendition was re-released as a charity single after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and made the national anthem a Top 10 hit.
In the coming days, we will learn more about why Houston has become the latest artist to join the list of stars who died too young. But she joined the list of iconic voices a long time ago.
About Rich Copley & Copious Notes
Raised by opera-loving parents in a rock ’n’ roll world, Rich Copley has parlayed his broad interests into his career writing about arts and entertainment. Since 1998, he has covered performing arts, film and faith-based popular culture for the Lexington Herald-Leader, the daily newspaper in Lexington, Ky. MORE | E-mail Rich