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by Mike McGuirk

February 23, 2011

Whitney Houston: Not a Punchline

by Mike McGuirk  |  February 23, 2011

People who were not around may not know — and even many of us who were around often forget — the power with which Whitney Houston exploded on the American consciousness when her self-titled debut came out in 1985. For one thing, her elegant beauty was downright shocking, but her voice was something people had, well, literally never heard.

As a 15-year-old more interested in how The Wall was clearly written for and about me, even I was astonished by the deep soul of "You Give Good Love." For the next decade, she was the undisputed champion of popular music, leveling any and all competition with a Mike Tyson-like gulf between her talents and those of her peers. Sure, Madonna had the eyes of the world glued to her every move, but Whitney was the real singer. Just her pedigree put her in a class by herself — the daughter of '70s soul and gospel singer Cissy Houston, cousin to Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick, and godchild of none other than Aretha Franklin — talk about lineage.

In addition to selling records in the millions upon millions, Houston was an outspoken activist for the then-imprisoned Nelson Mandela and a vocal opponent of apartheid. But still, some critics called her a sellout and a panderer to white audiences. The fact is, Houston's talent was impossible to ignore, and the entire world responded. When her second record, Whitney, came out in 1987, it debuted at No. 1 not just in the U.S. and the U.K. but also in countries across the globe. Winner of six Grammys and over 400 other awards, she is in The Guinness Book of World Records as the most awarded female ever.

In 1991, she performed a truly incredible version of the national anthem at Superbowl XXV. People often refer to Marvin Gaye's take from the 1983 NBA All-Star Game as the best ever, but Whitney's is definitive. Well, Marvin Gaye's version is pretty great; it's just that Whitney delivered the often somewhat blah song with such unrestrained, showstopping power, it's hard to imagine anyone even coming close to the effortlessness and superhuman strength of her voice. Released as a single, the song actually made it to No. 6 on the Billboard charts, the proceeds from which go to a foundation for Gulf War vets.

For years, there's been talk of Houston lip-synching the performance. Hard to believe, as the YouTube clip shows she is either singing the song herself or it is hands-down the greatest lip-synch job ever pulled off. Plus, there are none of those awful extra "hey-yay-yay-yay"s tacked onto the end of every verse, which is something "divas" do these days to either prove their singing ability or be annoying, not sure which, and her involuntary body language during the "O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave ..." line is just awesome.

When Christina Aguilera sang the national anthem a couple weeks ago at Superbowl XLV, there actually were side bets offered by Vegas on how long she would hold the word "brave," over or under 6 seconds. She smashed the under by holding it for 11 seconds. That's a lot of "hey-yay-yay"s. This is not to put down Christina's talents; it's just that even when Whitney is literally bringing the house down (see "I Will Always Love You," which we don't have the rights to, dammit), there's a subtlety to her art that seems to have gotten lost as soon as Mariah Carey came along and blew everybody's mind with a range that reached dog-whistle levels. Mariah is another one whose talents are irrefutable — but without Whitney, there is no Mariah, or Christina. It's a straight line. They would say the same thing.

Along the way, Houston married Bobby Brown, and her fame dimmed as record sales flagged and tabloids whispered about drug abuse and a volatile marriage. And by the time Mariah Carey did emerge as a major talent, Houston was practically a recluse, making rare public appearances and seemingly only getting press whenever Bobby got arrested. Over the years, Houston became more of a joke than the truly remarkable singer. But the fact is, she is one of the greatest singers — if not the greatest singer — of her generation. If Whitney had been a dude, this spiral into drugs would be celebrated as "cool." Instead, she was, until only recently, almost castigated for a drug problem that practically destroyed her. She finally divorced Bobby Brown in 2006, and in 2009, I Look to You, her first album of new material in nearly 10 years, was released. The truth is, her voice is not what it was, and there are only flashes of what was once spectacular, but she survived. No longer tight-lipped about her past drug use, Houston has officially made the transformation from Leno punchline back to one of the most important artists or our time. It's just too bad people tend to forget it.

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