Whitney Houston will always be remembered as one of the greatest singers of our time with a voice matched by only her beauty and commanding stage presence. Yet, despite the magnitude of her many accomplishments, the grand diva’s legacy is marred by one glaring point: she was rarely involved in the making of her biggest hits.
Throughout her career, Houston’s songs were selected in a collaborative effort by her, Clive Davis and other members of her A&R team. In fact, with the exception hits by other artists that she covered, all tracks recorded by Houston were tailored with her in mind, and they were presented as completed demos that only required her final approval.
That’s right, Houston wasn’t much different from Rihanna, who is regularly slammed by critics for her limited involvement in the creative process of crafting her seemingly endless string of releases. For the sake of fairness, Rihanna did supposedly co-write almost every track on her Rated R album, which totaled to more credits than Houston earned from all six of her studio albums.
Just take a look at the list of Houston’s Billboard Hot 100 entries to get a clearer idea of her contributions to her own music. From her thirty-nine hits on the chart, she only co-wrote two – “Count on Me (Ft. CeCe Winans)” and “Whatchulookinat”. The latter of those songs was widely panned by critics, probably because Houston followed the directives of then husband Bobby Brown, who was also its producer.
That leads us to the next point: Houston also didn’t produce her songs. Although her name appeared as an executive producer on all of her albums after The Bodyguard, Houston’s role in her projects, as such a title indicates, was essentially managerial and she rarely sat behind the board to add melodies or beats to her records. Indeed, Houston is only named as a music producer on a short list of her songs, such as “I’m Knockin'” from her I’m Your Baby Tonight album.
So, what separated Houston from acts like Rihanna and Britney Spears, who still very little to their music other than the unique tones of their voices? Houston was a brilliant interpreter of music and a gifted entertainer – the core facets of her artistry.
Similar to Celine Dion, Ella Fitzgerald and her cousin Dionne Warwick, Houston had the rare ability to make almost any song her own. She would turn the simplest of phrases into a passionate moment of incredible melodrama as her finely-tuned mezzo-soprano cooed then thundered to capture to essence of every expressed emotion.
Indeed, Houston was certainly more than just a karaoke act who just layered her voice onto the vocal arrangements of other singers; she was a virtuoso with both the ear and the instrument to take any tune she covered to new heights. As Patti LaBelle stated, once Houston sang a song, it automatically became untouchable.
Houston was also an unmatched live performer and possibly the last of a generation that is now fading into distant memory. With the conviction of Aretha Franklin and the glamour of Diana Ross, Houston was the US answer to Shirley Bassey when she stood onstage with a mix of sweat, sequens and gut-twisting soul.
Furthermore, Houston was never afraid to show her imperfections. Yes, she lip-synced several of her shows and used a backtrack for some of her most challenging hits – she never belted the climax of “I’m Every Woman” live – but those moments weren’t the norm. Houston would belt and riff until her wigs tilted and her trusty towel was dripping in sweat since being camera ready was never high on her agenda.
Still, despite her abilities as a vocalist and entertainer, there is no denying that Houston limited contribution to her music did her a major disservice. Beyond the impressiveness of her voice, there is little that is noteworthy about her catalogue, which boasts dozens of cliché self-help tunes and sappy love songs that trigger nausea when read on paper.
None of Houston’s albums were favourably compared the greatest works of Madonna (Ray of Light), Mariah Carey (Butterfly) or Janet Jackson (The Velvet Rope). Interestingly, there is key point observable at this juncture: Houston has no signature album!
Think about it: Does Houston have a definitive record that truly represents her story as an artist? Adele has 21, Mary J. Blige has My Life and Lauryn Hill has The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill but what is Houston’s signature piece?
Many of you will suggest My Love is Your Love as Houston’s definitive album but by following the dominant trends in music during the late 1990s, that record could have been easily recorded by any R&B artist of the era, particularly Blige. Really, the included songs were reflective of radio at that time and gave little insight into Houston’s life the way The Velvet Rope did with Jackson or Butterfly did with Carey.
Just imagine how great Houston’s I Look to You album would have been if she actually wrote more than just “Like I Never Left”. Given her divorce from Brown, drug abuse, the loss of her voice and the her plans to walk away from the music industry in favour of living on a tropical island, the record could have been the best of her entire career, regardless of her vocal condition.
Alas, we will never know Houston’s real potential. However, it is clear that she was more than just a karaoke singer like the thousands of American Idol contestants who have followed in her wake. The key facet of Houston’s legacy was rooted in her amazing talent as a vocalist and performer, and although her music was very shallow when compared to many of her peers, her name will forever stand among the greatest artists of our time.