Performances That Pop: Whitney Houston’s Medley at the 1991 Billboard Music Awards

I could do a year’s worth of the “Performances That Pop” series and every post could be about Whitney Houston.

The legendary diva had one of the greatest voices in the history of popular music. And yet, it’s easy to underestimate her talent. A criticism of Houston was that her music catalog was often beneath her vocal abilities. It’s a double-edged sword of a critique. It acknowledges Houston as a supremely gifted vocalist often restricted by the limited melodies of ’80s pop and the overwhelming bombast of ’90s adult contemporary. It also diminishes her musicianship, even though her genius lies in her ability to elevate material like “Where Do Broken Hearts Go” and “How Will I Know” to stratospheric heights with just her voice.

It is true that the recording studio didn’t quite do Houston’s titanic instrument justice. The truest appreciation of her artistry comes from her live performances. On stage, Houston would let loose and rip the limitations of her songs to pieces. She could demonstrate the raw power of her voice and its adaptability, versatility, color, and, range.

Her performance at the 1991 Billboard Music Awards perfectly encapsulates Whitney Houston as a performer. 

1991 was a transitional year for Houston. The year before, she released I’m Your Baby Tonight, her third studio album, and a deliberate effort to shake off criticisms that she had steered too close to white audiences and abandoned her Blackness. The R&B album wasn’t as successful as her first two, peaking at #3 on the U.S. charts and selling 4 million copies. (Whitney Houston and Whitney each sold ten million copies in the States.) Even after her history-making performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Super Bowl, Houston needed a reset. The Bodyguard would come the following year and make her a legend, but she didn’t know that then.

The 1991 Billboard Music Awards would have to do. After an introduction from her cousin Dionne Warwick, Houston took to the stage in a shimmering gold gown and sang a medley of Billie Holliday’s “Lover Man,” Barbra Streisand’s rendition of “My Man,” and her #1 hit “All The Man That I Need.” She kicked off the performance on a silky, flirty note, toying with the jazz standard’s melody. Houston teased the audience, smirking as she dipped in and out of her booming range without going all the way into it. It was if she was saying that we’d have to earn the right to hear her mighty voice.

Blessedly, she didn’t hold back for long. With the backing band kicking up the tempo behind her, Houston unleashed what Oprah famously declared “The Voice,” turning Streisand’s Funny Girl lament into a towering tour-de-force of lovelorn emotion. The notes she sang in this segment, and the power behind them, nearly defy logic and science. Houston’s chest voice, trained in the gospel tradition, was in exemplary form. Every melodic word was a punch to the gut, leaving the audience slack-jawed and at her whim. After a display of pure domination, she pulls back again with a pretty, multi-note run as the lights behind her dim. She allowed the audience a beat to recover before hitting one more power note and making a butter-smooth switch into “All The Man That I Need.”

By this point, Houston had demonstrated that she could take on two of the greatest vocalists of all time – Holliday and Streisand – and make their standards her own. She could adapt her voice and evolve the material until she outputs something wholly unique and vital. “All The Man That I Need” was a victory lap. In fact, it was Whitney Houston showing off and showing out. Already a gigantic ballad in recorded form, she chops and screws with the song’s melody, throwing out melisma and runs and explosive notes with abandon. Her “more lovin'” run in the song’s climax is plain disrespectful.

The performance codified Houston’s right to stand beside the women who came before her, a year before The Bodyguard. The best part, aside from her out-of-this-world vocals and extraordinary poise, is seeing how much fun she had on stage. That night, she won four of eight awards, and while I’m Your Baby Tonight wasn’t a world-shifting success like its predecessors and successors, you get a sense that she was enjoying herself and her talent. Considering the immediate and long-term trajectory of Houston’s life, this night takes on a different significance. It was one moment in time before everything changed, for better or worse. 

Houston will always deserve better than what she got. She deserved more nights like this.

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