In the 1980s and '90s, every schoolgirl who ever ascended a competition stage to showcase her vocal chops sought refuge in the Whitney Houston oeuvre.
Houston, the 48-year-old American R&B star who regularly stormed the pop charts and who died on Saturday from undisclosed causes, was to the Michael Jackson generation what Aretha Franklin was to the Elvis Presley era — a melismatic counterpoint to the syllabic, staccato intonations of dance-ready pop. Has any single alphabet crested over as many notes as the one that inaugurated I Will Always Love You? That smash from The Bodyguard — the 1992 feature film that was Houston's first; she essentially played herself, a chart-storming diva — became the best-selling single by a female artist in music history. Few remember, today, that it was originally a Dolly Parton ballad, written and recorded in the 1970s. It became Houston's signature song.
By this time, of course, success was nothing new to Houston. Her eponymous debut album, released in 1985, burst onto the Billboard charts with three Number 1 singles — How Will I Know, Greatest Love of All and Saving All My Love for You. The latter was yet another cobwebby pop-culture artefact that Houston commandeered from its original singers, Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr., and her rendition was an immediate announcement of the talent that separates the great singers from those with merely great voices: the ability to narrate a story through song. Assuming the role of a woman in love with a married man, Houston caresses the opening lines to indicate little more than a fond familiarity. “A few stolen moments is all that we share / You've got your family, and they need you there.” We think she has given up, that she has settled for these stolen moments — and then come the lines that close the stanza. “But no other man's gonna do / So I'm saving all my love for you.” The emotion amplifies ever so gradually, not just with the ascent into the higher registers of the octave but also in the way her throat opens out to issue a stentorian declaration of obsessive intent. A star was instantly born.
And a star she remained well into the 1990s, forsaking exploration and experimentation for a soothing sound that she knew would please her millions of fans. Critics, after a point, were frustrated by the gospel-trained singer's penchant for gold-plating imitation jewellery (say, Shoop Shoop from the Waiting to Exhale soundtrack) but she sold over 170 million albums, and in 2009, the Guinness World Records cited her as the most-feted female performer of all time, with a haul that included two Emmies and six Grammies. With seven Number 1 singles in a row, she even overthrew a Beatles' record.
And then she fell to earth. Her tempestuous marriage to singer-songwriter Bobby Brown crumbled and an addiction to marijuana and cocaine whittled away her greatest asset.
Post divorce and rehab, her last album, I Look to You (2009), was received well enough, but it was less a superdiva's long-awaited comeback than a sobering acknowledgement of a former star's will to survive. Houston's death came just before the Grammy Awards were to celebrate the best of last year's music. At least, they won't have to search very hard for a number to honour her with. They just have to look towards her signature song.