When I learned of Whitney’s death from a Facebook post, something in my chest dropped. I immediately sent text messages to my sorority sister, who owned every recording by Whitney Houston, even one of a song created for an AT&T commercial, to find out if the news was real. Then I called my actual sister, who is older than me by fourteen years and was born just four years after Whitney. It was with her that I first saw Waiting to Exhale at the movie theatre in our hometown. She, along with many news sources I’d tracked down, confirmed the fact of Whitney’s death. When my mother called to find out if I’d heard, her voice was noticeably haunted and heavy with concern for Whitney’s mother. “That was Cissy’s baby,” she said. “I just feel so bad for Cissy.”
I posted a status update to Facebook about “not being ok” with Whitney’s passing and many friends chimed in—agreeing, speculating that her long battle with drugs had finally taken her, blaming Bobby Brown. My college roommate called and we reminisced about her rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner,” aired at the Super Bowl during the first Gulf War; elementary school programs we’d attended where the pretty girl in our class always performed “The Greatest Love of All”; and all of the times we’d sung some Whitney song as little girls ourselves, alone, mouthing the words into a hairbrush in front of our mirrors. I had more wine, and another of my friends posted the music video for “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” my favorite moving image of her, skin glowing, neon lights flashing.
Hearing news of Whitney Houston’s death made my typical preoccupations about romantic partners feel excessively pointless. I was shaken, in disbelief—hadn’t she been doing so much better? To make sense of this sudden loss, I needed to reflect on it with my closest female friends. For us, the cadences of Whitney’s speech, her readily apparent love for family, music, and God felt familiar and alive. We had all seen something of ourselves in Whitney and spent years in wonder at the extra light that shone off her: so much achievement, beauty, and boundlessness expressed so unapologetically in one black woman’s body and voice.
Exchanging Internet links with friends that night, I learned that Whitney Houston had auditioned for and won a role on The Cosby Show, but she did not accept the part. At the time, she had not signed a record deal, yet refused to bind herself to a show in the long term because she wanted to be free to tour as a singer. She took the gamble that she would sing and that she would succeed at it.
Whitney grew up watching her mother, Emily “Cissy” Houston, sing and manage a career in show business, often accompanying her to recording sessions and performances. Immersed in a world of black talent, Whitney developed a keen interest in the performing arts and an awareness of her own blossoming abilities.
It’s fitting that young Whitney, buzzing around to casting calls and singing gigs in early eighties New York would audition for The Cosby Show. She was born in 1963, during an era where pioneering black entertainers like Sidney Poitier and Diahann Carroll were achieving many firsts and crossing significant racial barriers. By the time of Whitney’s early adulthood, an explosion of opportunity seemed to erupt for black performers, powered by the sacrifices and hard work of those pioneers. Cable television was taking off, including the launch of BET, and Spike Lee’s first feature films were released. Bill Cosby, who in the sixties had been the first African American to star in a drama on network television, had acquired considerable power and fame. Created out of material from his successful stand-up routines, The Cosby Show was expected to be a hit.
But beneath Hollywood’s sheen, the early ’80s—the years of my earliest childhood memories—were dismal for black America. The hope and affirmation of the Civil Rights and Black Power eras had given way to deindustrialization and rampant joblessness, rapid urban decline and disinvestment. The March on Washington, an apotheosis of the black freedom struggle in America, had taken place only 21 years before the Cosbys debuted in 1984. That same year, Ronald Reagan was elected president for a second time, defeating his Democratic challenger with an overwhelming and historical majority of electoral votes—a clear referendum on policies from his first administration like the War on Drugs and its accompanying militarization of local police forces. Federally funded media campaigns full of coded language about “drug fiends” and “welfare queens” flooded the airwaves, stoking national fears of the urban poor. By 1986, crack brought an escalation of violent crime and blight to many urban centers, and stories of “crack babies” and a “crack epidemic” became widespread. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act introduced mandatory minimum sentencing for offenders found guilty of distributing cocaine and more severe sentences for the distribution of crack, bestowing felonies and prison time upon unprecedented numbers of first-time offenders, who were disproportionately black and brown.
It is difficult to comprehend such a rapid descent from promise to despair, from creation to disrepair. It was the Cosby family who brought the possibility of black excellence back to broad American consciousness even though the idea of it at the time was not at all mainstream, but rare, amorphous, and uncertain. Race was rarely discussed explicitly on the show, but the Cosby home was decorated with the work of black visual artists like Varnette P. Honeywood and Ellis Wilson. Musicians Dizzy Gillespie, Miriam Makeba, and Stevie Wonder made guest appearances. Layered on top of the Cosbys’ blackness, somehow both complicating it and making it clearer, was their prominence—their advanced degrees hanging on the walls of their sprawling upper middle class home on a flawless Brooklyn block.
My own family was nothing like the Cosbys. Our working class neighborhood was well maintained, but the small one-story house we lived in was perpetually in a state of disrepair. Despite going to school at night and working all day as a clerk at a well-regarded regional hospital, my mother simply could not keep up with everything financially. Stressed out by her responsibilities, she was brusque and inattentive at home. My father lived with his new wife in a small town across the river and visited me once a week, then once every other week when his son was born. Growing up relatively alone in a depressed southern urban center, I hungrily soaked in the lives of Denise and Rudy and Cliff and Claire; they felt nourishing and foundational, like the walking, talking manifestation of hope. The Cosby family home was everything that my own was not: nuclear, chaotic, happy, financially all right.
Even outside of the show, Cosby was an outspoken proponent of traditional American family values and academic achievement—core pillars of black respectability. It was the joke of Hannibal Burress, another black male comedian, that precipitated Cosby’s tumble from grace in the summer of 2014. Drawing attention to the disconnect between Cosby’s wholesome image and his laundry list of rape accusations (“Bill Cosby has the smuggest old man public persona: ‘Pull your pants up, black people, I had a successful sitcom!’ But he’s a rapist!”), the joke went viral. Accounts from dozens of women who had accused him of sexual assault over the past four decades rose to the forefront of public awareness. For months, Cosby supporters, some of them black and female, loyal to the man who in many cases made their own careers possible, shunned the accusations, invoking the possibility of a conspiracy to undermine one of the most accomplished and beloved black entertainers of all time.
There are, no doubt, many provable instances of white sabotage of black success throughout the history of this country. I cannot begin to assign a number to all of the black lives and wealth lost to the unfair lend-lease system of sharecropping, unfair housing and lending practices, unfair court trials and sentencing. Yet, I believed Cosby’s accusers almost immediately; this, I knew, was not that. Still, I watched the events unfold with a sinking feeling of betrayal and a broken heart. I spent my entire childhood anxiously grasping at a way to keep up with the Cosbys, trying hard to win acceptance from my own family and the broad world outside: acting in plays at the local theatre, making A’s, joining the chess club, the band, being excellent. The truth about Bill Cosby—that the esteemed creator of the critically important, affirming Cosby Show, was a habitual predator of women—forced me to open my eyes to greater truths I had long known but had not yet fully thought through for myself: that the pursuit of any accomplishment is complicated and often derailed by race. And that while adhering to the norms of black respectability may feel like a reasonable way to confront the dark chaos of racism, it is in fact fool’s gold, a false promise, requiring exhausting, humanity-denying effort without any guarantee of ease, protection, or acceptance along the way.
In many ways, the consistent excellence with which Whitney Houston showed up on the stage and in interviews—poised, polished, pretty, pleasantly well-spoken—made the same impression on me as the Cosby Show did. The two are related cultural signposts, institutions even, that mark my coming of age as a black woman in America. There was—and thankfully it still exists in her recordings—limitlessness, expansion, and affirmation in her voice. Anything is possible, I hear. But while the Cosbys represented a sort of wholesomeness I could never reach, the narrative of Whitney—told through magazine profiles and carefully rehearsed interviews on talk shows—allowed me to believe that she had grown up just like me. Born to a humble family in Newark, New Jersey, she moved to a suburb of the city when their financial circumstances improved. As a child and teenager, she sang in the church choir. Her mother made her do chores. She was real, not fictional, and she was the perfect poster girl for black ambition and respectability—twin life rafts, I believed as a child, that I could hold onto as I worked to free myself from my own circumstances.
Whitney wasn’t just like me, of course. And she wasn’t anyone’s girl next door. Her voice, at its best, was a soaring, multi-octave wonder, full-throated and not at all tentative or whispery on its upper edges and dulcet, resonant, yet still very clear at its bottom. Her vibrato was so precise and use of melisma so measured that black audiences, conditioned by Aretha’s and Chaka’s supple excesses, initially rejected her smooth, straight-ahead approach to the note. The soul in her voice came not so much from its girth or from the drama of her flourishes (of which, to be sure, there were plenty), but from the authority and exacting perfection of her performances.
Her childhood was not an ordinary one—it was comprised of hours upon hours of practice, many logged at New Hope Baptist Church, her home church and itself a study in black American history. Cissy Houston was the choir’s director as well as a member of the Sweet Inspirations, a vocal trio who garnered fame by singing back-up for numerous acts during the rock and roll era. Most scholars and fans would agree that the essential blackness of backing vocalists—the sense of rhythm and time they provided a song, the response to the lead singer’s call, the oohs and aahs and other well-placed adlibs that communicated something ineffable—was elemental to the popular music of this era. The Sweet Inspirations can be heard on many generation-defining recordings—Aretha Franklin’s string of 1960s hits for Atlantic Records (it’s Cissy hitting the high notes in the background of “Ain’t No Way”), Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis, Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland. The Sweet Inspirations also recorded five albums of their own before Cissy left the group to pursue a solo career.
Whitney’s non-ordinariness was further emphasized by other facts of her family tree. Aretha Franklin considered herself Whitney’s “honorary aunt.” Dee Dee and Dionne Warwick were Whitney’s first cousins. Soprano Leontyne Price was a distant cousin. Despite seemingly humble origins, Whitney Houston was of truly royal lineage, born and bred like a Kennedy. Her success was deliberate. She was passed a baton and ran with it. Several days after her death, my father—a baby boomer, decorated Vietnam veteran and loveseat cultural critic with a rock-solid black consciousness—told me that he was growing impatient with the media’s spin on Whitney’s biography: “How could Cissy Houston’s daughter, Dionne Warwick’s cousin, and Aretha Franklin’s [“honorary”] niece be ‘discovered’ by Clive Davis?” he asked.
Whitney’s otherworldly beauty, talent, and impeccable pedigree were not enough to keep the darkness away, though. By now we all know that Whitney struggled with drug addiction for a good portion of her adult life and had a relationship with her husband, Bobby Brown, that was difficult and often toxic. When these troubles surfaced, I painstakingly watched every interview where she addressed the drugs either directly or indirectly, commenting with friends on outlandish, defensive statements she’d make or, toward the end of her life, marveling about how far it seemed she was coming along on the road to recovery. Many in the black community believed it was her marriage to Brown that caused or deepened her despair and descent into trouble. It is true that before our eyes, Whitney struggled with where to put her ambition, how to serve it, and how to negotiate conflicting desires like being a fully actualized artist and career woman, a mother, a wife. She mentioned in several interviews that while working on movie sets, what she truly longed for was to be at home with her daughter. Collectively, we watched her downfall, held captive by the cinematic tension between the promise of her uncommon talent and the banality of her personal failings.
But I am a black woman who has traveled my own rocky path lined with career successes and frustrations—winning promotions, enduring casually racist jokes from important clients, hearing my own ideas pitched and credited to someone else, squeezing in time to write between long hours spent making a living. So I know that the story of Houston’s rise and fall is much more complex. Her problems were as much external as they were internal—for the truth is, in America, being a black woman audacious enough to possess and claim her own brilliance means following a fraught and tenuous path that many do not survive intact. We consider Whitney our own because the black community has always made room for outsized talents, but those feelings of kinship have never erased the difficulty or the double standards that black women navigate. The effects of racism are obstacles that crowd our way, and we try to adapt with obedience to rules and conventions born out of the rigid ideal of black respectability: Work twice as hard, dress with dignity, act like a lady, protect your man.
Bill Cosby benefited from forty years of protection. After the allegations came to light, he was defended vigorously by figures within the black community, some of them prominent like Phylicia Rashad and Damon Wayans, because of his genius, his contributions to the culture, the way he set a standard for wholesome black manhood and personal responsibility. But we do not extend this sort of protection to black women, even if they have excelled in a field so expertly that they have made all of our lives better.
Whitney Houston’s success as a solo artist was astonishing. At present, she has sold nearly 200 million records and is the only artist to chart seven consecutive number one Billboard Hot 100 singles. In the first film she starred in, The Bodyguard, her cover version of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” became the best-selling single by a woman in music history. That Whitney could be out in front, face first, on her own records; crossover to pop radio and the Hot 100 Billboard charts; garner considerable national airplay on MTV (a network that would not even include videos with black performers in its rotation initially); and achieve lasting financial success is notable in the context of the American recording industry. But in the popular narrative, and often in my own private conversations, the personal, the dramatic, the sensational is talked up, dwelled upon, and almost always gets just as much or more airtime than the accomplishment. We pile heaps of shame upon Whitney for her personal failings despite her long history of overachievement.
The talent of black, Latin, and female artists has been historically appropriated and erased in American commercial music. Consider “Hound Dog,” written in 1952 by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller for Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton. Audiences loved it, and the song held at number one on the R&B charts for weeks. Three years later, Elvis Presley recorded the song and some combination of his whiteness, maleness, and record label investment allowed his version to eclipse Big Mama Thornton’s. Presley’s version is, to my ears, significantly hollowed out, devoid of the authority in Thorton’s performance—one that drips with feeling, heartbreak, and soul. Despite this, it is Presley’s, of course, that is the name that we all recognize.
The old pattern persists. Justin Timberlake is the new standard bearer of Memphis soul, and Macklemore is the only hip-hop artist that some parents will let their children listen to. The 2016 Grammy awards offered minutes-long tributes to deceased performers David Bowie and Glenn Frey, but gave considerably less airtime to honor Maurice White of Earth Wind & Fire (a noticeable influence on Mark Ronson, who won Record of the Year for “Uptown Funk”) and Natalie Cole, who won nine Grammys over her lifetime. The presentation of awards for the R&B categories was not even aired during prime time. Rock and pop awards were—an almost dishonest erasure considering that R&B is fundamentally, inextricably related to both genres.
The rapper Kanye West has figured out a way to retain some control over how the public discusses and assigns value to his accomplishments: through repeated brash, hyperbolic, Muhammad Ali-esque assertions of his own genius. I find myself rooting for his audacity even when I am not in agreement with the sentiment. Although he cannot yet be compared in any literal sense to Pablo Picasso, Steve Jobs, or Gil Scott Heron, as he’s loftily done in interviews and recordings, his claims are sophisticated arguments that demonstrate an awareness of the value of his artistry and the unfairness entrenched in the American music industry. Repeated enough, the words of West’s greatness are accepted as truth, becoming the dominant narrative framework, the starting point, for how we think and talk about him. His maleness gives him the permission to be brash, and his persistence reminds us that despite his less than perfect personal life and the imperfection of his ramblings, the art is first.
With Whitney, we flip this narrative by emphasizing her personal life, and we do not go far enough when we talk about her accomplishments. We are unlikely to describe her as an innovator, yet, in her famous rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner,” she found the space to sing a new note in the song that has now become standard to perform. Her approach to the lyric of nearly every other song she attempted, the swift precision with which she searched for and found her notes, her style of singing overall, has become widely imitated across genres. Houston and the entire lineage of black women performers that preceded her invented techniques and sounds that have been endlessly covered and riffed upon, but they are generally under-acknowledged for their genius and how much lasting impact they have had on the landscape of American music.
Often, these black women performers can’t escape the narrative of greatness gone tragically wrong.
Memorable soul vocal performances provoke a visceral reaction in the listener, born of the singer’s ability to transform emotion—glee, sorrow, and all of the hues between and beyond—into sound and rhythm. The body is a critical conduit of this; the power that soul singing proclaims is born of a fierce, defiant embodiment. It is as if the singer is communicating some existential point: that this flesh—this body, in all of its blackness, with its despair, longing, and transcendent joy—matters. And what it has to say is true, urgent, and will change you. The graceful power of Whitney’s voice, her percussive, sometimes aggressive delivery, her insistence on the centrality of the lyric, her sense of restraint, all derive from and build upon this tradition.
Late in 1967, Aretha Franklin released the single “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” after Carole King and Gerry Goffin, along with Atlantic executive Jerry Wexler, wrote it with Franklin in mind. The song is a decidedly singer-songwriter tune, in a confessional, bare bones, folk music style. The earthiness of the composition and melody supported the song’s somewhat paradoxical lyrics, a second-wave feminist ode to an old-fashioned, good relationship that heals and empowers the protagonist. Franklin’s recording of the song is iconic and announces itself as such within the first few seconds. Accompanying herself on the piano, Franklin plays a few gospel chords before the lyric begins. Her voice is wistful and introspective, yet somehow still sure and resonant. Franklin’s background vocalists—her sisters Carolyn and Erma Franklin—support her early on in the recording, starting to bear witness to her testimony with an aah ooh after the first bar. Aretha and her backing vocalists toss the spotlight back and forth like this throughout the first verse until the song reaches a slight key change and transitioning moment, which Aretha sings alone. This call and response creates tension that breaks when all of the vocalists join together on the transcendent chorus in three-part harmony aided by an expansive string arrangement.
Several months earlier, Franklin had released her debut on Atlantic Records, I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You). The album was her coming out, her artist’s statement, a confluence of all of her influences and inclinations. Aretha’s voice, in all of its multidimensional glory—sometimes brooding or plaintive, at others rollicking, buoyant, chastising, or seductive—is given full reign on it. These recordings, especially “Respect,” “Do Right Woman—Do Right Man,” and “Dr. Feelgood,” as well as the title cut, are performances that help to define what soul music, and by deep association, what American music is. Every singer aspiring to sing American-influenced popular music must, at some point, contend with Aretha’s creation on this album: her voice, pushed to some celestial yet body-centered place, her rhythmic, gospel-informed piano accompaniment, and the background vocals supporting her like a Greek chorus of sisterhood. Depending on the track, the backing singers are either her sisters or Cissy Houston’s group the Sweet Inspirations. Whitney Houston’s recordings were certainly influenced by this formula, but musical accompaniment and background singers seemed to be somewhat less crucial to Houston—the dynamism of her voice and interpretation of the lyrics most often took center stage.
Aretha’s Atlantic albums contain singles that are near the top of nearly every list that I’ve ever seen on the best of American recorded music. The songs are made of a mixture of wild, vibrant sexuality with gospel, the good news of Jesus, the ecstasy and comfort of his care—sometimes fused in the same note. The sacred and the sensual are the north and south poles of soul music; every soul song can be plotted along this continuum. In some songs, you can feel disoriented and confused as to where you are on that map. Houston’s secular recordings are drenched in gospel, but they are also tempered by her signature restraint. Many of her songs begin with a sense of composure and cool before a grand crescendo, and even then, there are moments when you get the sense that she is holding back, refusing to give it all away. The ecstasy of listening to a Houston performance derives mostly from its confident precision.
The story of the all-white Muscle Shoals rhythm section’s involvement in Franklin’s Atlantic recordings has been told in many books, magazine articles, and documentaries. According to one very popular school of thought, these musicians were crucial in grounding the albums with a gritty, authentically black sound that had been missing in her earlier work. And sure, soul music certainly benefitted from the contributions of the Alabama musicians who played on recordings by artists like Percy Sledge, Otis Redding, and Wilson Pickett. Although it is a time-honored American tradition to credit white people with black success, Franklin’s own increased confidence and creative impulses, sharpened by a long professional recording history, deserves much more credit than it has received. Like Whitney, Aretha’s talent was homegrown and cultivated well before white audiences became aware of her—she was known in the black community as a prodigy and grew up singing with her father, Reverend C.L. Franklin as he toured extensively on the gospel circuit.
When listening to Carole King’s rendition of “Natural Woman,” it is difficult for me to shake the notion that it is she who is covering Franklin’s song, rather than the other way around. I love how stripped down and personal King’s recording sounds—there is no melodramatic string arrangement to get in the way of the chorus. But I long for the gospel, the Jesus in Franklin’s version of the song, the tense desperation for salvation and redemption that drips off of Franklin’s voice. I miss the simmering, dangerous sexuality of it, and I miss the background vocalists who surround Franklin throughout the song, having a heart-to-heart conversation with my own inner listener who longs for exactly what they are talking about. Similarly, it is difficult to listen to Dolly Parton’s version of “I Will Always Love You” without thinking of Whitney. Both are beautiful renditions of an exceptional song, but Whitney somehow found more space, more to do with the melody—inserting pregnant pauses and inflections where none existed before, creating much more drama and deeper emotional connection with the listener.
Aretha Franklin imposed a standard of vocal performance, set a milestone to reach, and created a body of work that is a lighthouse in a lineage that includes female blues singers from the early twentieth century like Bessie Smith, Whitney Houston, and stars of the Internet era like Beyoncé. Franklin also wrote songs of great variety—“Daydreaming” and “Think,” among others—that garnered considerable crossover acclaim, creating a template and providing undeniable proof that black artists could market their work convincingly to the mainstream, foreshadowing and enabling Whitney’s genre-exploding success.
One late fall evening, I was laying across the dark green couch of my then-boyfriend’s apartment. He was sitting at the mahogany round table that he’d placed square in the middle of the room. On it were his black vintage typewriter and many scattered pages. He’d bought the table recently, inspired by the one in my dining room that I’d found after rummaging through local second-hand stores months before. The room was dark; he was smoking. I was drinking something dark, mostly because he was, but also to relax. I had frayed nerves from a long day of working at my day job.
We were listening to something that turned the conversation to American music. He said that there were no great, canonical black composers; only Jewish men like George Gershwin had contributed to the American songbook, and no song by an African American songwriter could truly be considered a standard. It wasn’t a judgment call on his part so much as his ignorance speaking—it seemed like he really didn’t know there had been black composers of note. I mentioned Louis Armstrong and “Hello Dolly,” Billie Holiday and “God Bless the Child.” Growing irritated with me—my sensibilities or my willingness to disagree with him—he said that Billie was illiterate, a “crack ho” who couldn’t possibly have “written” anything. That he could be so clueless both enraged and depressed me.
I was a sensitive, lonely child, and finding Billie Holiday’s recordings as a teenager was like coming home to my own angst at a time when I could not name my feelings of angst or loneliness or even admit beyond a vague recognition that something was missing. Holiday had the ability to utter the unutterable.
But along with mining a vast emotional terrain, Holiday was a highly idiosyncratic and precise singer who provided strong and steady direction to the musicians who accompanied her. Her sound formed a bridge between the blues and vocal pop, out of which modern jazz and popular music as we know it today were born. Singers like Frank Sinatra are on record admitting to making attempts to imitate Holiday’s phrasing and her quiet, intimate style of live performance that enchanted audiences. With her insistence on singing and talking about “Strange Fruit,” Holiday articulated a space for social consciousness in popular music that artists like Nina Simone, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, and an entire cadre of politically-minded hip hop musicians would later inhabit.
Yet, as with our endless discussion and public fascination about Whitney Houston and her struggles, we cannot read about Holiday without reading about her trouble, her darkness—her youth in a brothel, her rape as a preteen, her own possible sex work, her intermittent schooling, her lamentable adult relationships, and, of course, her heroin addiction. This is the substance of her legend, and it eclipses her artistic contribution so much that we believe that one would not exist without the other, that she would have not been as expressive a singer had she led a happier life. In this version of her story, Holiday’s professionalism (she earned her career singing in Harlem nightclubs and touring with the orchestras of Benny Goodman, Count Basie, and Artie Shaw), artistic agency, and yes, her authorship, are simply not factors.
In a 1939 interview for Downbeat, Holiday described her own inventiveness (italics mine):
I don’t think I’m singing. I feel like I am playing a horn. I try to improvise like Les Young, like Louie Armstrong, or someone else I admire. What comes out is what I feel. I hate straight singing. I have to change a tune to my own way of doing it.
I tried to push my boyfriend, to convince him of the veracity of Holiday’s artistic contributions, to make him believe in the existence of a sexist, racist framework through which her story had typically been told, but he would only listen so much. I can concede that we are all prone to seduction by the easy sensationalism of a tragic story—much of what made me fall in love with Billie early on were the mythic, archetypal rebellious bad girl elements of her backstory. Looking through that lens, Whitney Houston’s life followed the same pattern as Billie’s. But those are broad, simplified strokes, filters and distortions that cloud and diminish the accomplishments, creativity, and centrality of these black women to the fabric of American culture.
“You Give Good Love” was Whitney Houston’s first single as a solo artist, and it was released to the public early in 1985. Houston’s slowed-down approach to the lyrics made space for a grittiness to come through in the performance that may be a surprise to fans of the work she produced at the peak of her commercial success. “You Give Good Love” is fundamentally a soul record, and Houston delivers a robust, warm, emotionally tender performance that sounds like it inhaled the entire history of women’s soul singing, in particular the catalogues of Aretha Franklin and Natalie Cole, and exhaled something new.
Late in Whitney’s teen years, before she had a record deal, she sang backup for her mother, Cissy, at a venue called Sweetwater’s on 68th street and Amsterdam in Manhattan. Eventually, Cissy began to cede the limelight and allow Whitney to perform lead vocals. Recollections of audiences who witnessed these early Whitney performances describe her as self-assured, like a young woman on the precipice of something big. She was prepared for this moment; she had been preparing for it her entire life, as a witness to her mother’s career, but also as a disciplined protégé, who sat at the piano throughout her youth singing drills and duets with her mother, enduring endless corrections and adjustments. At Sweetwater’s, record executives like Jerry Wexler and Clive Davis swarmed.
Whitney would eventually sign a contract with Clive Davis on Arista Records. What came after the contract was a number of artist showcases and appearances, including one on the Merv Griffin show, her first live performance on national television. Houston belted out “Home,” from the Broadway musical The Wiz.
In the video of the performance, Houston is just 21 years old and wears a royal blue blouse with poufy sleeves that is belted at the waist. Her curly hair is cut close, and she is especially fresh-faced. She begins the performance softly, sweetly even, before launching authoritatively into full voice. She knows that this is her shot, that this is important, and she gives herself over to her talent, throwing her head back to let out what must come, raising and lowering her shoulders to give her air passages more room. Even at this early moment in her career, her style is mature, recognizable. Her signature audacity, the way she attacks the note, is there from the moment the first chorus swells.
These swells make way for Whitney’s unique crescendo. When the singer is full throttle, delivering at full belt—her head tilted back, eyes closed—the result is an effortless sound that feels like a simple increase in volume. The timbre of her voice is not compromised, and you do not hear a strain when she reaches for this chest voice. It maintains its steadiness, its polish, never spilling over, never backing down, never betraying itself. Her face does not tell a tale of struggle either; it tells the story of the song and communicates the lyric with coy smiles, small nods of her head. Despite the absence of any visible or audible strain, you recognize her voice’s power.
At the end of the number, Merv Griffin says that Whitney Houston is a name the audience is sure to hear again. Clive Davis joins them on the stage, greeting Whitney with a kiss.
Eventually, Clive Davis would give Houston the nickname “The Voice.” I have heard her called the greatest singer of a generation, or of all time, many times. I am not certain of either claim, but I know that she would go on to sing everything, chameleon-like, mastering every style of music that she attempted.
What is pop and what is soul or R&B has always had more to do with how audiences receive the music, and, more importantly, what the racial makeup of the audience that receives it is, than how it sounds. If Whitney can be considered pop, it is because she converted the mainstream to her tradition, re-appropriating and reverse-gentrifying the Billboard Pop Charts, providing an honest reflection of the importance of black traditions and culture to Americanness. The singer has been dead for almost half a decade, but I hear her in the voices of nearly every reality show singing competition regardless of race, ethnicity, or nationality. I have heard Whitney in the tone, timbre, tics, and adlibs of Mariah Carey, starting with her very first single, “Vision of Love.” The music of Brandy Norwood, Monica Denise Brown, Rihanna, Adele, Christina Aguilera, Demi Lovato, and Ariana Grande seems aware, reverential even, of Houston’s catalogue. From Whitney flows a stream sound with Cissy, Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday, and others at the source.
But in the zeitgeist, Whitney’s inventiveness and her inventions haven’t even been named. We are reluctant to call her, or any of her foremothers, “genius,” and we often forget to give them credit when they are very obviously being imitated. Even among a new generation of artists, a structure is in place that continues to give white artists the accolades, fame, and wealth—Adele and Taylor Swift, for example—while black artists, who provide them with considerable inspiration and may even be more technically proficient or more attuned to the times—like Jazmine Sullivan, D’Angelo, or Kendrick Lamar—earn less, receive less air time, win fewer Grammys. Even Beyoncé, perhaps the most powerful and visible of all young black commercial musicians, has faced upper limits to her domination—she has not yet won an Album of the Year Grammy, while Swift has won two. The weary skeptic in me feels like this may be harder for her to change now that she so blatantly and singularly addressed black audiences in her latest single, “Formation.”
The same shaming, silencing impulse that compelled authorities to address Billie Holiday’s drug addition by sending her to prison, handcuffing her in a hospital bed, and revoking her cabaret card so that she could not work during the middle of the twentieth century is the same one that makes it feel so natural to discuss and ridicule Whitney’s personal life (and that of her grieving daughter). This impulse insists that we center our conversations about Nina Simone on her mental illness and question Lauryn Hill’s value as an artist because she is often late to concerts. It is a conundrum, a mystifying labyrinth of structural inequality, white and male privilege, double standards, and distorted, simplified mythmaking that even the geniuses among black women must endure in order to own their stories and voices.
The soul singer Natalie Cole died at the very end of 2015, on my birthday. I was celebrating in upstate New York, watching the snow come down from a warm room with a fireplace when I found out. Like Whitney and Aretha, Cole inherited a tradition and a place in the music business from her family but made her own way. I’m not sure if it was because Cole was vocal about her past drug addiction and recovery; because she lived to be nearly 70; or because the vocabulary of #BlackLivesMatter and talk about reclamation of black spaces and black narratives has entered the lexicon broadly, but I felt a difference in the coverage I read immediately after her death compared to Whitney’s.
Mostly, this time, I read about the music: how jubilant the recording of her first single, “This Will Be (An Everlasting Love),” sounds, with its lush gospel piano and ecstatic trumpets; how she inherited and then riffed on her father Nat “King” Cole’s velvety tones; how Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin admired her. I remembered being at home on Saturday afternoons as a child, vacuuming or sweeping some corner in the living room, and watching my mother come alive whenever one of Natalie’s songs played on our stereo, snapping her fingers, dancing.
There was sadness in the conversation about Cole, but it also felt like I was sharing in the sweetness of delicate memories. Her death sparked an immediate, untainted celebration of all that she brought to bear upon American music, which assured me, as a fan, that she will live on because of the thread in the tapestry that she created. It was as if our culture, for once, could manage to talk about a black woman artist with complexity, offering attribution where it matters. And, in that moment, the story being told felt like the right one.