This has to be done.
There are far too many people who do not realize the significance of Whitney Houston and how she literally changed pop music forever. That’s neither exaggeration nor hyperbole.
And I’m about to tell you how.
Let’s get the basics out of the way first and list Ms. Houston’s achievements:
- Guinness World Records lists Whitney as the most awarded female act of all time with 6 Grammys, 30 Billboard Music Awards, 2 Emmys, and 22 American Music Awards out of 415 Awards.
- Whitney is the 4th best-selling female artist of all-time in the US, and one of music’s best-selling artists worldwide with over 200 million albums and singles.
- Her debut album was, at the time, the best-selling debut album of all time, and is on the lists of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s Definitive 200 Albums list, and Billboard’s 110 Musical Milestones In History.
- Her entrance into the music industry is #11 on USA Today’s 25 Musical Milestones of the past 25 years (in 2007).
- Whitney is the only artist to notch seven consecutive #1 singles on Billboard’s Hot 100.
- Whitney (1987) was the first album to debut atop the Billboard 200.
- “I Will Always Love You” from The Bodyguard is the best-selling single by a female artist in history.
- Whitney Houston was the first act (male, female, or group) to sell more than one million copies of an album in one week.
- The Bodyguard is the world’s best-selling soundtrack (while The Preacher’s Wife is the best-selling gospel album).
- Whitney is #9 on the Billboard Hot 100 All-Time Top Artists and #3 on VH1’s 50 Greatest Women of the Video Era.
It was 1985. Radio was consumed with 80s rock and dance-pop. Black artists were relegated to black stations and, save for Michael Jackson, shut completely out of MTV. ”Black voices” were too soulful to cross over into the pop market. Most of the great soul singers of the 80s still remain a mystery to the general marketplace because they never became pop successes.
Whitney Houston came to the attention of Clive Davis and Arista Records after being spotted in a nightclub. Her first singles were only moderate successes in Europe, so executives decided to promote her directly to black radio to gain a foothold and a secure fanbase. ”You Give Good Love” was a smash hit in R&B markets, and reached #3 on the Hot 100. ”Saving All My Love” became her first #1 hit, but it was “How Will I Know” that opened the doors for every other black female to come. In the mid 80s, MTV was being accused of racism for only playing videos by white artists. The writers of “How Will I Know” had written it with Janet Jackson in mind, but Janet, who was working on Control at the time, thought the song too weak to stand up to the edgier songs on her album and she passed on it. Whitney took it and ran, turning it into a pop classic with gospel-tinged black vocals, and it was the first video by a black female to receive heavy airplay on MTV. Janet followed in Whitney’s footsteps with “What Have You Done For Me Lately” and other singles from Control, but Whitney made the way.
With number-one single after number-one single, Whitney proved that white audiences would in fact buy records from soul singers. The black public accused her and her producers of taking all the black out of her early records: it was too pop, too adult contemporary. But that’s where her music changed the game. She was the first black artist to successfully bridge that space between singing in a black church for black people, and singing on late night television for white people. She made music that showcased her one-of-a-kind vocal ability, while still being accessible to all genres of music buyers. Before Whitney, pop singers were just singers. But Whitney sang. Without Whitney, there would be no Christina Aguilera, Beyonce, Kelly Clarkson, Leona Lewis, Boyz II Men, Adele, or Carrie Underwood. Whitney didn’t do it first, but Whitney was the first to make it work with pop music and sell records. There is, arguably, too much melismata going on in today’s pop music because every new singer feels the need to prove their worth against the towering vocal gymnastics of Whitney Houston.
Nowhere is this more evident than with Mariah Carey.
In the early-to-mid 1980s, Madonna roared out of the gate to become the premier female musical act. Her sales and chart success were based not only on a carefully crafted image, but also on a style of pop-singing that too would have an effect on today’s singers from Kylie Minogue to Britney Spears. Mariah was a back-up singer for Brenda K. Star just as Whitney’s career was taking off. She also had vocal chops, but no one til Whitney had made a career off of being a voice, and at some point, Mariah had to choose. On her early demos, record labels chose for her: they turned her into Madonna. Listen to this demo from 1986. Mariah clearly has vocal chops, but the key has actually been raised in post-production to make it more pop-friendly.
Mariah Carey “Weakness of the Body” (demo)
Since the mid-80s, female artists have had to make a choice: Be a singer like Whitney, a pop entertainer like Madonna, or a dancer like Janet Jackson. We expect so much out of our starlets, it’s almost impossible to make a career from just 1/3 of the equation these days, which is why Katy looks ridiculous (Madonna) and tries to prove she can sing (Whitney). It’s why Leona (Whitney) isn’t as big as she should be, because she fails at the other two. It’s why Lady Gaga and Beyonce are the world’s biggest pop stars, because they’ve found a way to display vocal chops (Whitney), put on wild productions (Madonna), and perform tight choreography (Janet).
Madonna is why pop music is the spectacle it is today.
Janet is why we expect our popstars to dance, even if they must lip-synch.
But Whitney is the reason why they sing the way they do in the first place.
Whitney brought sangin’ to pop music. And we should never forget that.