On Sunday night, the Grammy Awards were overcast by news 0f the death of Whitney Houston. The loss shocked the musical world that weekend, and her absence left a hole in the abnormally somber musical celebrations.
One great irony, however, is that Whitney would have probably been absent from the celebrations anyway. On a night when she had, in past years, been so dominant, effervescent and omnipresent, she was conspicuously absent in both a literal and figurative fashion.
Whitney Houston, at the height of her career, was incomparable. Born with supermodel-good looks and a voice that is still, perhaps, the best pound-for-pound voice the pop world has ever seen, Houston owned the industry. “The Star-Spangled Banner” got a facelift at the 1991 Super Bowl when she sang it, and many others have tried (and failed) to mimic her decorative-but-natural attempt at the anthem.
She inspired singers across the world, both individual and artificial, to imitate her acrobatic-but-melodic style, and essentially spawned an entire generation of singers over the last 2-3 decades. Everybody, from Christina Aguilera to Beyonce, from Jennifer Hudson to Faith Hill, from Mariah Carey to Sara Bareilles, has Whitney to thank for the bar she set in the women singers’ market.
Televised karaoke hours like American Idol were built on the voices of singers like Houston. Starry-eyed hopefuls demonstrated vocal prowess not by interpretation or musicality, like Houston would have advised them to, but by producing hollow copies of Houston’s style, attempting to pack as many notes into a measure as possible, or belting notes so loudly they begged for respect, instead of commanding it.
But these days, her powerful pipes are not echoing like they once were. Houston struggled publicly with substance abuse, which damaged her voice and confidence more than could ever be measured. She had already started to disappear from the performance spotlight. A recent solo album was less than stellar, and the sound of drugs and alcohol tinged her singing and wore on her endurance.
It could be said that Whitney, if she’d started singing today, might have been just as successful. These days, that smoky, gravelly sound is just what record companies are after.
In fact, in that Sunday-night Grammy celebration, Adele, the smoky, soulful songstress from across the pond, swept all six award categories for which she was nominated, and rightfully so. No one has changed the female vocal sound like Adele.
Well, maybe one other person.