Since 1985 Whitney Houston has been the female singer that has set the criteria by which we judge contemporary pop/R&B. Much like Aretha was in the '60s and '70s, Whitney is a template, a touchstone. If you grew up in the '80s, you grew up surrounded by the mystique and the star power of Whitney. The young recording star Mya was about five years old when Whitney's eponymous debut album became the first of a string of Number One albums, and, lika many, Mya realized her dream in part because she had an example in Whitney Houston. Offers Mya, "Whitney Houston is one of the few female entertainers today that inspires me, because she has such a beautiful gift-her voice-and has used it to touch people all over [the world]."
Being able to touch people is what making music is all about. It's the ultimate goal. Whitney touched so many people, became every woman to so many people, because in her there was something so identifiable. Something so real, even though the particulars of her life (famous mother, a face lovely enough to earn her a modeling contract, family friends that included Aretha Franklin) weren't exactly your typical girl-next-door scenario. It didn't matter to the public, though, that for Whitney stardom always seemed a foregone conclusion, or that her creamy, agile voice just appeared to pour out of her effortlessly. Whitney was an idol. Her grace, cool beauty and unquestionable skills motivated legions of little black and brown (and, yes, white) girls to pose in front of full-length mirrors, clutch hair brushes and move their lips along to the grand and triumphant smash "Saving All My Love For You." Note to future sociologists and cultural anthropologists: find out just how many local junior high school talent shows and church socials featured young women, hair just perfect, with their Sunday-best frock on, gamely belting out Whitney's penultimate '80s anthem "Greatest Love Of All." Notes Wyclef Jean, writer/producer of Whitney's 1999 hit "My love Is Your Love," "Every girl wanted to sound like Whitney, look like Whitney, dress like Whitney." Indeed, one could safely say that the careers of many female pop/R&B singers have occurred both as a reaction to, or as a result of, Whitney's out-of-the-box, across-the- boards triumph. It's a credit to Whitney's chops that those who came after her (and, as in the case of Kelly Price and Faith Evans, have worked with her) are quick to acknowledge the scope of her talent. "There's only one Whitney Houston," offers Missy Elliott. "There's something about her voice that does something to me."
Listening to her voice, especially in the context of summing up her career thus far, you can hear the growth, both as a singer and as a woman. Whitney was just twenty when she released her debut album, and since then we have watched and heard her as she's matured from a coltish, fresh-faced ingenue to a self-assured, sexy and experienced mother, wife and superstar. Notes Clive Davis, "She was certainly stunning [vocally] when I signed her. To the extent that her first two albums still hold the all-time record for the best-selling first two albums worldwide, clearly she astounded the entire musical world and the public. What happens after that is that you want to explore the soul, depth and range of an artist, so that over the years, there's no question that she has shown the enormity of her range, depth, soul and power."
That range, and the move into more complex material, are most obvious post the groundbreaking Bodyguard soundtrack. The film, which was Whitney's first major movie role, became a worldwide phenomenon, as did, of course, the soundtrack. As Clive explains it, "We had to find songs that fit the movie roles that Whitney was playing," in essence allowing Whitney to explore a new, more dramatic aspect of a vocal persona. Songs like "Exhale (Shoop Shoop)" and "I Believe In You And He," with their lived-in- but-never-worn-down wisdom, gave even more glimpses into Whitney's persona.
The growth continued, and the intensity went up a notch or two as Whitney made forays into the jittery push and pull of hip hop rhythms; remember, this church girl also grew up in the hip hop generation. Those moves toward material that was a bit more raw and a bit more edgy (elements that were frankly absent from some of her earlier hits) helped to burnish Whitney's once shiny surface. The progression to songs that allowed Whitney to be both sophisticated and "street," along with a reputation as a seriously solid live act, helped mute critics who sometimes dismissed her as a gifted vocalist but one who needed more depth. The criticism, it should be noted, often came from those who held Whitney to some sort of "realness" litmus test. It wasn't cool back in the early '90s to champion the elegance of a Babyface track, or to accept the notion that an R&B singer didn't have to stomp and sweat. Yet while naysayers continued to question her legitimacy (something the public never had qualms with), Whitney kept on. Covering Chaka Khan. Covering Annie Lennox. Covering Dolly Parton. Working with Diane Warren and Wyclef Jean. Recording a gospel/pop album that took her back to her roots. Executive producing and starring in a network production of Cinderella. Stealing the show at the 1999 VH1 Divas Live concert. Solidifying her power by co-executive producing all of her albums following 1990's I'm Your Baby Tonight. Growing and fortifying herself as an artist, actress, executive, mother, philanthropist, live performer, woman. In control. No doubt.