Music

Whitney Houston's Greatest Pop Moments

In celebration of her Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, a look back at the pop diva at her absolute best.

This morning, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announced the their inductees for 2020. Among the list was Whitney Houston, one of the greatest vocalists of her, and any other, generation. I won’t debate her worthiness as an inductee: her cultural impact is undeniable. I am also deeply biased in her favor. I also won’t be discussing her troubled personal and professional life (which, for some, might add to her “rock and roll” credibility) – we’ve all mourned enough in the eight years since her untimely death and everything there is know about her drug use, sexuality, and troubled life with Bobby Brown is out there and scrutinized to the point of exhaustion. And no, I refuse to acknowledge that awful hologram tour they are selling her out for.

Instead, this is a perfect opportunity to celebrate a singular talent who is thankfully being recognized for her musical contributions instead of as tabloid fodder or a GIF/meme generator (although she gives great GIF). If you’re not familiar with Whitney Houston as a musician, consider this a crash course in one of the best pop stars we will ever know.

Saving All My Love for You (1985)

While not her first hit (her debut single “You Give Good Love” peaked at #3), “Saving All My Love for You” set Houston on the path to success, topping the Billboard Hot 100 and winning the singer her first Grammy (spoiler alert: it wouldn’t be her last). In hindsight, this R&B ballad about full-blown adultery should’ve been a dicey proposition for an upcoming pop princess, but Houston’s sweet yet seductive vocal delivery makes the cheating go down silky-smooth.

How Will I Know (1985)

The song that made her a superstar, “How Will I Know” is a pure pop triumph, with its quintessentially 80’s synths, irresistible hook and chorus, the happiest saxophone solo in pop history, and an unabashedly joyous vocal from Houston. The song’s video, featuring the singer in a silver mini-dress and matching headband, is iconic and helped launch her on MTV when the network was still hesitant to put black artists on its airwaves.

I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me) [1987]

What “How Will I Know” delivered, “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)” perfected just two years later. From her sophomore album Whitney, her fourth #1 single found danceability in melancholy, with Houston desperately looking for someone to cure her loneliness with a spin on the dancefloor. While you can argue that the song doesn’t deviate enough from its predecessor, “Somebody” has stood the test of time as a standard bearer of 80’s pop, most recently popping up in a commercial for Detective Pikachu of all places. If that’s not impact…

Greatest Love of All (Live) [1990]

If there’s one thing to know about Whitney Houston, it’s that her live performances often exceeded her recordings. One of the best examples is her performance of “Greatest Love of All” at the 15th anniversary concert for her label Arista Records. Five years after she took the song to #1, Houston breathed new life into the ballad with a virtuosic vocal that would’ve been showboating if she didn’t make you feel every single word she sang. Actually, the diva was showing off here, reminding every person listening that, at the height of her powers, there was no touching her. The song’s final moments are what singing is all about.

I’m Your Baby Tonight (1990)

Not-so-fun fact: the I’m Your Baby Tonight album was conceived as a response to claims that she wasn’t black enough (which culminated in her being cruelly booed at the 1988 Soul Train Music Awards). Despite the calculation and colorism involved in its conception, Houston proved that she could take any genre, in this case the ascendant new jack swing, and mold it to her talents. On the title track, Houston is confident – fierce, even – as she explores new colors of her voice without trading away her trademark power. While the album marked a very slight downturn in her chart success, “I’m Your Baby Tonight” was a hip highlight.

The Star-Spangled Banner (1991)

In the most important performance of her life, Whitney Houston united a country on the brink of war with her regal, powerful rendition of the National Anthem at Super Bowl XXV. To call her performance iconic or legendary is underselling it: to this day, hers is cited as the greatest rendition in history by which all are measured. So beloved was her impassioned delivery that the single became a chart hit twice, in 1991 and in 2001 after September 11th.

I Will Always Love You (1992)

It’s difficult to overstate how important this song was when it was released. Houston’s cover of Dolly Parton’s tear-stained ballad for The Bodyguard soundtrack captured the cultural zeitgeist in a way that music can’t do anymore. The stats and accolades speak for themselves: two Grammys, fourteen weeks at #1, lead single of one of the world’s best selling albums, and love theme to a bonafide box office smash. On top of all that, “I Will Always Love You” represents the pure essence of Houston as an artist. Her interpretation of Parton’s lyrics is intelligent, rich and, when she hits that legendary note, cathartic, as she unleashes an emotional tidal wave that stops your heart with its intensity, and jaw drops your jaw with its technical proficiency. This is the song that solidified her as a legend.

I’m Every Woman (1993)

As big of a hit as it was, “I’m Every Woman” feels woefully underrated in the Whitney Houston catalog. For a woman who became synonymous with high-octane emotional balladry, her cover of the Chaka Khan classic was an incredibly hip, modern move. Houston updated the original’s 70’s funk with 90’s house beats provided by C+C Music Factory and re-energized the chorus with her powerfully resonant tone. It’s a fitting tribute to Khan (who she famously shouts out at the end), and arguably Houston’s most convincing turn on the dancefloor.

21st Annual American Music Awards Medley (1994)

Even though her catalogue doesn’t necessarily reflect it, Whitney Houston had the kind of talent where she could sing anything. The proof can be found in her performance at the 1994 American Music Awards. A show-stopping ten-minute showcase, Houston tore her way through renditions of “I Loves You Porgy” from Porgy and Bess and “I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” from Dreamgirls with aplomb. By the time she reaches her finale of “I Have Nothing”, she already had the audience eating out of her hand, and she knew it. After she left the stage, host Will Smith reintroduced the ceremony as the “Whitney Houston Show”, and truer words weren’t spoken that night.

Exhale (Shoop, Shoop) [1995]

Whitney Houston deserved at least four more #1 singles in the latter half of her career, but if this had to be the last, it’s a veery high note to end on. The lead single from the soundtrack to her film Waiting to Exhale, “Exhale” has Houston turning down the lights and the volume for this layered, mature R&B ballad. While she can’t help some vocal acrobatics towards the end, the diva spends most of the track riding Babyface’s elegant, romantic production, delivering her most relaxed delivery to date. It’s the kind of confident performance you give when you basically have nothing left to prove. Mind you, this is just a decade into her career.

This Day (Live at VH1 Honors) [1995]

Whitney Houston was a stunning amalgamation of pop, soul, and gospel. As brilliant as she was singing the first two, she was probably most comfortable singing the music she was raised on in the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, New Jersey. Houston reached unbelievable heights – spiritually and vocally – singing for the Lord. One of her absolute best performances, spiritual or secular, was at the 1995 VH1 Honors. The diva’s performance of “This Day” is transcendent, so impactful that even Houston got a bit overwhelmed (“Sometimes the church gets up in me, I can’t help myself”, she quipped).

When You Believe (with Mariah Carey [1998]

What happens when you get the two greatest female voices in music history in a room to record the theme to The Prince of Egypt? Surprisingly, not a multi-week #1 hit. And yet, Houston’s duet with Mariah Carey on the spiritual ballad is one for the ages. The two singers, rumored rivals for years, have tons of chemistry, even as they are scale up to the song’s inevitable climax and unleash their melismatic powers. While not the smash hit it deserved to be, the song won an Oscar and serves as an official record of two titanic divas joining their remarkable forces.

It’s Not Right But It’s Okay (1999)

Up until this point, Houston has never really gotten pissed off on a record before. Thankfully for her, Rodney “Darkchild” Jenkins produced the perfect vessel to vent her imagined (and likely real) frustrations, with this sexy, cool kiss-off. With winking confidence, Houston rips her lover’s defenses to shreds and asserts her independence, against a modern but adult production that proved that the diva could still be relevant well into her 30’s. Further proof of her versatility is the song’s hugely popular “Thunderpuss Remix”, which flips the R&B midtempo into a thumping club romp.

Million Dollar Bill (2009)

There’s no denying that by 2009, Whitney Houston’s sparkling voice was a shadow of its former self. But beneath the damage done by drug abuse and overuse, the diva still had an innate musicality, technical prowess and vital spirit that could compensate pretty well. On “Million Dollar Bill”, the second single from her final studio album I Look to You, a huskier-toned Houston returns to the dancefloor with a 70’s R&B throwback that is easy to appreciate thanks to her genuine connection to the Alicia Keys-penned lyrics and an under-appreciated hook. The song didn’t do well chart-wise, but it showed that Houston, after everything she’d been through, could still rally and deliver.

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