Performances That Pop: Whitney Houston at the 1994 American Music Awards

Every pop legend has an era where they effectively dictate the rest of culture. Michael Jackson had Thriller, while Prince had Purple Rain. Madonna changed pop with “Vogue” and The Immaculate Collection. Mariah Carey made #1 debuts a sport with Daydream, and “My Heart Will Go On” ensured Céline Dion would be played on every airwave on Earth. 

For Whitney Houston, The Bodyguard was something else entirely. 

Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston in The Bodyguard (Courtesy: Everett Collection)

In 1992, after the relatively minor success of I’m Your Baby Tonight, Houston roared back with The Bodyguard, her first film and its soundtrack. She played Rachel Marron, a temperamental actress-singer who begrudgingly enlists the help of former Secret Service agent Frank Farmer (Kevin Costner) to protect her from a crazed stalker. The movie, despite mediocre reviews, was a cultural phenomenon, grossing over $400 million worldwide. The soundtrack was even bigger. Helped by the record-breaking smash “I Will Always Love You” and subsequent hits “I Have Nothing” and “I’m Every Woman,” the album sold over 30 million copies, becoming the best-selling soundtrack ever and the best-selling album by a woman.

From November 1992 to 1994, there was Whitney Houston and everybody else. She was an overnight movie star and the world’s most successful female singer. Her 1993-1994 worldwide tour was a resounding success. She swept the 1994 Grammys, winning Album of the Year, Record of the Year, and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. Her personal life also bolstered her presence in the zeitgeist: her tumultuous marriage to Bobby Brown and the birth of her child Bobbi Kristina. For better or worse, Houston was the moment. 

Whitney Houston backstage at the 1994 American Music Awards (Courtesy: Ron Galella, Ltd/WireImage)

The pinnacle of that moment was the 1994 American Music Awards. Co-host Will Smith quipped that the ceremony was the “Whitney Houston Show,” but he wasn’t wrong. She won eight trophies that night, more than any other artist. (She would joke during her streak that she should “stay up here” on stage.) Stevie Wonder would also present her with the special Award of Merit. Houston would’ve had a fantastic night if it had just ended there.

But she also performed.

Dick Clark anticipated Houston’s dominance over his ceremony, granting the diva a plum ten-minute performance slot. Instead of filling it with any mix of songs from The Bodyguard, Houston chose to perform a medley. She was no stranger to medleys; one of her all-time best performances was a medley at the 1991 Billboard Music Awards. This one, however, was her most ambitious. She and musical director Ridley Minor combined three towering vocal standards: “I Loves You Porgy” from Porgy & Bess, “And I Am Telling You” from the Broadway musical Dreamgirls, and Houston’s “I Have Nothing.” Each on its own is vocally taxing. Putting them together, with three-second breaks, is lunacy for even the most accomplished vocalists.

And yet, Houston stood center stage in a stunning black velvet gown and gave one of the most extraordinary performances of her lifetime. “I Loves You, Porgy” is Houston at her jazzy, sumptuous best, flirting with Gershwin’s composition with a smile you can hear. Houston has fun with her gift. She teases the audience with glimpses of her voice’s momentous power, scaling high and pulling back. Then, four bells behind her ring, signaling that playtime is over and the powerhouse centerpiece is to begin. Houston transforms the yearning Broadway showstopper “And I Am Telling You” into a vocal pop firestorm. The notes explode out of Houston’s chest, the force of each run so powerful that the Shrine Auditorium should’ve collapsed. She interprets every sound with her body, stomping her feet and using her arms to punctuate each beat and control the pace like a master conductor. 

“And I Am Telling You” alone is a triumph, an overwhelming tour de force of vocal fortitude and diva might. But Houston wasn’t done, as her band transitioned, with four pounding beats, into “I Have Nothing.” If the first song showed off playful Whitney, and the second featured powerhouse Whitney, the final in the medley was a jaw-dropping fusion of the two. Sufficiently warmed up, Houston sings with unbelievable ease and authority, thoughtfully traversing the verses and melodies to add vocally impressive flourishes without being self-indulgent. She does indulge herself, though, in the song’s delicious melodrama. She decorates the chorus’ opening line with a hand slammed forward, as if commanding the audience to stop and listen. If you weren’t already enraptured, Houston’s barn-storming climax clinches it. The final two minutes are a feat of vocal dexterity that, given the preceding eight minutes, should’ve been impossible. 

Houston’s medley at the American Music Awards stands apart in a career of exceptional live performances. (There’s a reason why Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody, the latest biopic, is bookended by it.) Her performance was the culmination of nine years that redefined what success could look like for a Black female artist. Rather than being just a well-deserved victory lap, Houston demonstrated why that night, she stood alone. Houston performed at the height of her vocal prowess, careening towards the limit and leaping past it without a stumble. Whatever came before and whatever followed, this one moment in time was undeniable, the defining moment for pop music’s definitive diva.

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