From the first, Whitney Houston seemed the quintessential 80s pop star.
As befit the video era, she was physically stunning, with a photogenic face and figure — her label took pains to point out that she had modelled for Mademoiselle, Cosmopolitan and Glamour — and a natural ability to work the camera. But she had a voice to match, a tweeter-straining, gospel-schooled instrument capable of both coloratura flourishes and heartbreaking blue notes.
That she would sell more than 170 million albums and win six Grammys seemed almost predestined.
Houston’s status as gospel/soul royalty seemed less important to the fans who pushed her singles up the charts. Her mother was gospel/soul stalwart Cissy Houston, who in addition to her own records sang back-up for Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and countless others. Her cousin Dionne Warwick was one of the most successful pop stars of the 60s, thanks to such soul-tinged pop fare as Say a Little Prayer and I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.
Houston’s initial success seemed to follow the path taken by her cousin, playing down her gospel roots in order to emphasize her vocal prowess and effervescent charm. Her eponymous debut, in 1985, put four singles in the Billboard Top 5, three of them No. 1s; Whitney, the follow-up, did even better, delivering four chart-toppers, including the blandly infectious I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me).
Under the direction of Arista Records chief Clive Davis, Houston was groomed to become the America’s Sweetheart of her era, with a clean-scrubbed persona carefully matched to her upbeat singles. But there were dissonant notes rumbling beneath that image, first about her “close” relationship with childhood friend Robyn Crawford, then following her 1992 marriage to professional bad boy Bobby Brown.
I Will Always Love You, the epochal hit from her film debut, The Bodyguard, neatly summed up the cultural dissonance this produced,. On the one hand, there was much to admire in the way she turned an old Dolly Parton weeper into the Devil’s Cigarette Lighter of torch songs; on the other hand, the single’s epic bombast made it hard not to sympathize with English housewife Joan Hall, who tossed a neighbour’s stereo out the window after incessant playing of the single pushed her round the bend.
Houston tried to reorient her career with a return to her R&B roots in 1998, with the critically acclaimed album My Love Is Your Love, but by then the pop audience had moved on. Her final album, Look to You, debuted at No. 1 in 2009, but a disastrous concert tour the following year, marred by poor performances and cancellations, left fans fearing the worst. On Saturday, their fear were confirmed, and one of pop music’s most resonant voices fell eternally and lamentably silent.