For little girls in the 1980s and 1990s, Whitney Elizabeth Houston was everything. Her big hair, the seemingly heartfelt lyrics, her skinny little knees in a denim miniskirt, her powerhouse of a voice — she was the supreme living doll. I have not met a single woman of my generation — white, black, brown or whatever — who did not want to be her at some point. She was perfect.
And now, with her passing, a certain kind of pop star is gone for ever. Her mix of gospel vocals with unthreatening girly looks and attitude made parents comfortable. The gospel in her voice was the legacy of an early life spent singing in church, and the illustrious line of female gospel vocalists she came from: her mother is the great Cissy Houston, her cousin Dionne Warwick, her godmother Aretha Franklin. It meant that Whitney was probably singing in church as she was learning to speak, perfecting the vocal acrobatics heard among black congregations everywhere. By the time she was making her first forays into pop, she was already a seasoned performer with a weekly audience. The gospel training also allowed her to straddle genres to powerful effect, as anyone who remembers her cover of Dolly Parton’s ‘I Will Always Love You’ will attest.
That ineffable girl-next-door vibe Whitney had is something that’s more or less disappeared from the pop scene in the last 15 years. Child and teenage stars endure, sure, but not like her. She was pretty — enough to be a successful model — but she was also sweet. Her persona didn’t seem like an act to shift more units, though it undoubtedly helped. It reflected her upbringing, her rootedness in a certain kind of black culture. I remember my mum referring to her as a “good girl” — a ringing endorsement if ever there was one. But her safeness as a pop star didn’t mean she was boring, because that voice made one thing very clear: “I may look like a milquetoast, but have you heard me sing?”
You very quickly run out of words to describe Whitney’s voice. In her heyday — basically a large chunk of the 80s and 90s — it could stop you in your tracks. Today’s pop stars bandy vocal pyrotechnics about regardless of their capacity to really pull it off. They are all knowing sexuality and casually orchestrated middle finger salutes. Whitney existed in a world before all of that. She was marketed as America’s sweetheart, previously the domain of blond white girls: a huge cultural shift. When she co-starred in The Bodyguard opposite Kevin Costner, it was virtually unprecedented. Here was a black woman, a singer no less, making a worldwide smash hit movie like it was a normal thing to do.
It was Whitney’s famously clean living that made her subsequent troubles — a relationship with R&B bad boy Bobby Brown, drug use, a reality TV programme, finally divorce — seem all the sadder. In many ways, her life was the inverse of today’s female singers. While they play wild and dangerous on stage, they seem to lead focused, driven, business-led lives off it. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the case of Beyoncé. She’s Sasha Fierce while performing, but Beyoncé the CEO at all other times.
Like Michael Jackson before her, Whitney Houston defined the pop landscape of her time and influenced it for years afterwards. Every time you hear Beyoncé drag out a single syllable over three or four beats, that’s Whitney. And when Mariah Carey does her little hand movements to accompany a ridiculously high note, that’s Whitney too. This was a talent that others can only imitate. And for all her troubles in later life, her legacy is secure: come The X Factor this autumn, you’ll hear it by the truckload.