During the last two decades, Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey have been continuously compared by the media as well as their fans, thus causing a seemingly neverending debate. Even today, months after Houston’s sudden passing, parallels are still being drawn between the divas. Yet, are those comparisons justified?
The only way for us to truly get to the root of the Houston/Carey debate is for us to take a journey through time and reflect on the beginnings of their respective careers. Yes, I know that this is Thursday and Way Back Wednesday was yesterday but memory lane has great shopping for consumers of knowledge so strap on your comfortable shoes and let’s take a stroll.
When Houston blasted into the music scene in the mid-1980s, she was an artist that the industry had never seen. With a powerful voice that could be scaled back from a booming belt to a soft coo in one swift swoop, a tone that was readily adapted to both the Pop and Urban radio formats, and the looks of a supermodel, she was the complete package.
In fact, Houston had what most other female artists lacked – talent and marketability. Prior to her arrival, we had Aretha Franklin who ruled in the 1960s with a voice like thunder but she didn’t have the ideal look of a Pop star. Diana Ross definitely possessed the latter quality but her voice was lighter than Chris Brown is on his feet.
The only woman who had similar facets to Houston was Donna Summer but the business model used to market her was not adequately refined to help her survive the fall of the Disco era and her success quickly waned after 1984 as the music landscape rapidly changed. Thankfully, with the genius of Clive Davis in her corner, Houston excelled where Summer failed.
“There was really nobody who could rival Houston’s mix of ability and marketability…until the arrival of Carey in 1990.”
So, now we understand why Houston so easily outperformed her contemporaries from the moment of her debut and easily competed with the already established Michael Jackson and Madonna. There was really nobody who could rival her mix of ability and marketability. Well, at least not until the arrival of Carey in 1990.
After years of searching, Columbia Records boss Tommy Mottola finally found his answer to Houston in the form of Carey and she even outmatched her predecessor in many ways. Not only could Carey hit every note in Houston’s massive range but she could sing far higher as well as lower than her peer. Also, the tone of Carey’s voice was incredibly distinct and remarkably colourful yet colourless.
In fact, Carey’s voice equalled her looks, which leads us to the next point: she was more marketable than Houston. The latter singer followed in Summer’s footsteps and helped to break colour barriers in the media so that African-American women could enjoy airplay on television, particularly on MTV. However, despite her achievements, Houston was still limited by her obvious ethnicity.
However, don’t think for a second that Houston was mainly rejected by certain white audiences. Her black fans were the people who denounced her work during one of the peak periods of her career. Who remembers when she was booed by patrons of the Soul Train Music Awards in 1989 because her music was “too white”?
This is where Carey’s ambiguous features gave her the edge. Is she white, black, latino or a species of Pokemon? We just couldn’t class her during her early career – and many people still can’t – so she shifted easily between the formats. Carey’s label clearly understood that fact and she became of face of MOR (Middle of the Road) music without ever sounding too Pop or too Urban; even her music was colourless.
With that little history lesson explained, we can now discuss how the media easily turned Houston and Carey’s fans against each by igniting the most bitter feud since Prince vs Jackson in the early 1980s. This is actually quite easy to do if we review our notes: Houston and Carey both had massive voices and incredible technical control, and they were both beautiful women who targeted similar audiences.
Despite the fact that Houston and Carey were completely different performers and their music became progressively dissimilar by the mid-1990s as the latter continued to explore the sounds of Hip-Pop while the other ventured into Adult Contemporary R&B, the media continued to fuel their imaginary feud. Of course, their labels enjoyed the extra publicity because it helped to drive record sales.
Still, anybody who took the time to look beyond the propaganda would have quickly realised that Houston and Carey were drastically different. The former had a rich, powerful, clear and refined mezzo-soprano that was basically spotless. Carey’s voice, on the other hand, was far from perfect but that helped her to standout among the singers of the era. Indeed, her instrument was husky yet light, agile yet strong, colourful yet soulful and nobody could agree about how to class it. In other words, Carey was and still is a freak of nature, and I say that with love.
I always use this analogy when people compare Houston and Carey’s voices: imagine two people baking a cake. One person makes the perfect cake that matches the recipe in the book to the last word without error. The other quirkier person breaks the rules and creates a cake with an innovative recipe that was never considered but it tastes just as good. Who gets an A grade: the model student (Houston) or the risk-taker (Carey)?
If you need another example then think of America’s Next Top Model (Cycle 3) when Tyra Banks had to choose between Yaya and Eva for the prestigious CoverGirl contract. Yaya (Houston) was perfect by every standard but the judges picked Eva (Carey) because of her unique and interesting appeal. It really is just a reflection of taste.
“Where Carey regularly tried to match her recordings during her live concerts, Houston was more natural and focused on delivering the best possible show for her fans.”
Regarding their approaches to singing, Carey definitely outclassed Houston as a technician because of her thorough understanding of her range but Houston was the better live performer. Where Carey regularly tried to match her recordings during her live concerts, Houston was more natural and focused on delivering the best possible show for her fans.
Honestly, Carey experiments so much with her vocals and musical stylings in the studio that sometimes I wonder if she forgets that she has to sing those songs live. Houston thought like a true entertainer and although her music was more one-dimensional when compared to Carey’s material, she knew how to bring it to the stage.
In the end, after a few paragraphs of my rambling, it’s clear that Houston and Carey did have their similarities but they were very different artists. The media simply preyed on the minds of those fans who weren’t able to look beyond the basic parallels and think about their favourites artists without the added thrill of a possible feud.
Watch Houston and Carey perform ‘When You Believe’ below and see if you can spot the points I highlighted about their voices: