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Beyond Lionizing the Dead: Why Whitney Houston Matters

Whitney Houston

As Americans, we tend to be a celebrity-obsessed culture. We constantly prowl for the next big thing, and when we find it we latch on with all our strength and demands for perfection. This can lead to incredible rises, but more often the resulting crash is just as precipitous. In our modern musical landscape, the booms and busts often happen quickly, but not long ago the biggest stars in the business shone so brightly that they dominated the landscape across numerous genres.

Regardless of how you look at it, Whitney Houston was one of those superstars who left a colossal imprint on the music world during her quick rise to fame. Like Michael Jackson, she paved the way for a generation of young black women to make their way in the world of popular music. While Jackson broke MTV wide open for young black men, that door had remained obstinately closed for women of the same age. Then Whitney put Houston, just 22 at the time, on the global music map, conquering radio and television to become one of the biggest star-making vehicles of all time. Rolling Stone and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame named the album one of the 500 greatest of all time, and it launched her voice into the top echelon of great female voices.

That doesn't make Houston’s death such a critical loss. Neither, really, is the fact that she’s one of the biggest-selling female artists of all time, and by far the most “awarded” of her or any generation. What stands out above all else is how widely she influenced music over the ensuing 25 years. Houston recorded seven studio albums and played a major role in several of the biggest soundtracks of the '90s while building her career in film. But her magnificent voice directly influenced Mariah Carey and Celine Dion in the '90s, setting a template for virtually every major female R&B singer of the current generation in one way or another.

Above all her voice will be her legacy. “Her voice is a mammoth, coruscating cry,” wrote Rolling Stone in 2008, when naming her among the 100 greatest singers of all time. “Few vocalists could get away with opening a song with 45 unaccompanied seconds of singing, but Houston’s powerhouse version of Dolly Parton’s ‘I Will Always Love You’  is a tour-de-force.” Dubbed the Queen of Pop for her influence on adult-contemporary pop in the '90s, she was one of those few singers who could build a tour on little more than her voice, not needing the trappings of a contemporary touring show. A pop diva in every sense of the word, when Whitney sang people listened. Even when recording something as traditional as our national anthem, she blew away the competition and proved that well-known melody could be as worthy of top ten status as any other song.