Sunday, 12 February 2012

A moment in time

Incomparable. Probably the best word to describe the woman who, along with Madonna, was responsible for transforming popular music in the late 20th century. The last decade may have been dominated by a pitiful series of revelations and scandals, but in her prime, there was no-one quite like Whitney Houston.

People like to throw around the word 'Diva' to describe anyone with a big voice, but Whitney typified the concept better than anyone. Her songs were packed with tremulous drama and heartbreak, delivered with confidence and control. And yet offstage, her life began to spiral into desperation and despair.

Those early revelations of drug abuse were hard for fans to swallow. Whitney had always seemed so clean-living, boring even. So when Bobby Brown's sister sold pictures of the R&B golden couple's crack-strewn bathroom to a tabloid magazine, the world was confronted with the grim reality of Whitney's fall from grace.

This was a million miles away from the timid and shy girl who'd made her TV debut on the Merv Griffin show in 1983, alongside her delighted mentor Clive Davis. Two years later, when her first album was released to great acclaim, critics lauded her "exceptional vocal talent" but commented that it was a somewhat conservative showcase for such a phenomenal voice.

For much of her early career, Whitney was dogged by similar criticism, even as she notched up record breaking sales figures for her accessible brand of MOR soul. Perhaps that's why Brett Easton Ellis dedicated a whole chapter of American Psycho to Whitney's second album, representing as it did, a high benchmark for that sanitised, slickly-produced R&B soul that was so prevalent in the '80s. Even so, the author correctly called out 'Love Is A Contact Sport' as a fantastically effusive piece of pop that deserved to be a single.

Away from the recording studio, Whitney was just as uncontroversial. We recall the look of horror on her face when appearing on Michel Drucker's French talk-show alongside Serge Gainsbourg, as the saucy old coot announced to the host "I want to fuck her." Several years later, on The Word, she struggled to understand Terry Christian's thick Mancunian accent as he asked her if Eddie Murphy (her one-time boyfriend) had "rung her up" during her stay in the UK. She smiled gamely, even mocking Christian's pronunciation, but seemed uncomfortable at the personal nature of the inquiry.

Her first film role, opposite Kevin Costner in The Bodyguard, saw her expressing discomfort with the profanities in the script, but committing herself fully to the performance. The role of Rachel Marron, originally intended for Diana Ross, was hardly a stretch, but she was convincing enough to provoke rumours that Costner had excised some of her scenes for fear that she might outshine him on-screen. Not that any of it mattered, since it's the soundtrack that passed into pop culture history, not the film. The album shifted over 45 million units, with lead single 'I Will Always Love You' scoring another 12 million sales.

Although her interpretation of the song had lost much of the subtle nuance that Dolly Parton had originally intended, the vocals were a masterclass in soulful balladeering, and arguably inspired a whole generation of would-be singers. That giant mezzo-soprano, capable of whispering tenderness, soaring heartbreak, or exuberant celebration, was a once-in-a-lifetime gift. Lining up on shows like X-Factor, American Idol and The Voice, these young girls might attempt to replicate Whitney's mastery, but almost always suffer from the comparison. Like the guitar store sign in Wayne's World that read 'No Stairway To Heaven', perhaps the audition rooms for these talent shows should have one that bans Whitney's back catalogue.

Of course, knowing what she was once capable of, makes her recent attempt at a comeback all the more tragic. The media prayed for a disaster, and that's pretty much what they got. After years of abuse, her voice had lost its warmth, range and power, leaving her shouting and out-of-breath. The 'Nothing But Love' world tour was supposed to represent her triumphant return to the stage, but the press focused on reports of weak performances and fan walk-outs.

Whitney died yesterday, aged just 48. And although she may not leave behind an extensive body of work (just six studio albums in 27 years) her singular influence and extraordinary talent will not be forgotten. 'I'm Every Woman' might have become her unofficial anthem, but in reality, she was anything but.

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