Black Herstory: Whitney Houston’s Vocal Legacy

In the midst of my sadness upon learning of the untimely death of Whitney Houston, I tuned into the Grammy Awards show this past Sunday, curious about the planned tribute to one of the greatest voices in the modern pop music era. However, instead of being uplifted with memories of Houston’s glory days, I felt worse.

There was no denying the impact of Houston-style singing on today’s pop divas–from Jennifer Hudson, who was called upon to give a rendition of Houston’s iconic vocalizing of “I Will Always Love You,” to British sensation Adele, who swept the main Grammy awards and whose soulful vocals suggested that the pop R&B music Houston made so famous in the ’80s and ’90s has been outsourced across the pond.

But there was something else more sinister going on at the Grammys than the strange and chaotic performance of demonic possession offered by rapper Nicki Minaj.  We didn’t see the protests just outside the ceremony against the Recording Academy for eliminating categories featuring music by artists of color–categories that, ironically, gave Houston four of her six Grammy awards. Neither was there a televised presentation of the Lifetime Achievement Award given to Diana Ross, another diva who many might argue helped pave the way for Houston. This Black Herstory Month, in addition to losing the incomparable Whitney Houston and, before her, Etta James, I am beginning to feel our legacy fading away.

Whitney Houston didn’t just change the way the world heard genres like pop music and R&B: She kept alive a long and vibrant history of Black women’s vocal music. Out of this tradition, Black women crafted what Farah Jasmine Griffin calls “the quintessential American voice,” belting out in rich vocal textures feelings of hope (in spirituals), secret plans for escape to freedom (as Harriet Tubman did while singing spirituals), pain (in the blues), joy (in gospel), political protest (in freedom songs) and sexual healing (in just about every pop genre).

Houston learned these traditions not just from the New Hope Baptist Church Choir in Newark where she got her start, but also from her mother Cissy Houston (a gospel and R&B legend in her own right), her cousin Dionne Warwick and her legendary godmother Aretha Franklin. These “church” voices lent their talents to the pop world, but that’s the beauty of Black music: The influences flow easily from one genre to another. That’s why Mahalia Jackson, arguably the greatest gospel singer, could say she was influenced by the styles of secular blues singers like Bessie Smith. And those blues women influenced everyone else in gospel, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, Motown and soul.

When a vocal legend like Ella Fitzgerald can turn a nursery rhyme into a sophisticated jazz tune, or Billie Holiday can break your heart singing about lynching or morning heartache through her eccentric blues stylings, we should not be surprised when Houston–once she was mentored in the pop music genre–could turn Dolly Parton’s country music ballad “I Will Always Love You” into an international vocal standard. My students once expressed, when listening to each version, that Parton sounds like a “victim” while Houston sounds like a “survivor.”

Whitney Houston again transformed singing with her 1991 performance of the National Anthem at the Super Bowl, which continues to be the measuring stick for every other anthem singer. That’s what vocal mastery means: to take a song, layer it and color it with signature styles, from improvisational licks to extended notes to soulful melisma. It’s the glorious “money note” that makes you stop at one instant–when you’re half-listening to your radio or iPod–to take in the voice. And that voice sends chills down your spine and communicates everything you ever wanted to hear about love, heartache, patriotism, politics and the joys of being a woman, of being human.

In the sexist branch of the music world, women vocalists are dismissed as “real” musicians, since the boys are usually jamming away on an instrument. Women are taken seriously only if they write songs or play an instrument. As someone who is well aware of the complex genealogy of Black female vocality, which Houston popularized for mainstream and international audiences, I beg to differ: Singers are real musicians, and the fact that we can say Houston is incomparable is to bear witness to this truth.

Perhaps that was why I wept after watching the Grammys. It was not just the passing of a legendary vocalist; it was because what remained in her place was a sad reminder of the marginalized Black female vocalist. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love Adele and her 21 album, but I caught the irony in seeing her emerge victorious on Grammy night in all her big-boned glory while someone like Jennifer Hudson has spent the past few years focused more on weight loss than on crafting a comparable album. And after witnessing how Hudson’s image on her debut album Spotlight had been photoshopped to a slender size, we may understand why she rearranged her priorities.

Worse, Hudson was lit in silhouette when she came onto the stage for the Whitney Houston tribute, as though she were being framed to literally “fit the mold” of Houston. This is a heavy burden she did not need, nor is this the way Houston’s vocal legacy should continue. The whole point of art is for the next generation to learn from the greats and take their gifts to the next level through new vocal styles or delivery. Hudson was being asked to imitate, not improvise–the essence of Black vocal music. And no one can imitate Houston without falling short.

Perhaps that’s the real demon Nicki Minaj was trying to exorcise in her performance: Somewhere in the entertainment-industrial complex, a Black female vocalist with phenomenal talent either transforms her genre and dies young (like Houston, like Holiday), survives but struggles with drug abuse (Etta James), survives but gets ignored (like Diana Ross) or gets stifled (like many other Black R&B artists today who perform in the shadows, either as back-up singers to the likes of Adele or in underground circuits, and are now unable to even gain Grammy recognition in eliminated categories).

However muddled Minaj’s execution, underneath it is a feminist critique about the Black female performer plagued by insidious demands to “feel pretty” and conform to industry standards if they wish to be visible. The critique was a discordant, deranged, a “hot mess” as many have said, but in light of Houston’s tragic end that may be the point.

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Janell Hobson is professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany. She is the author of When God Lost Her Tongue: Historical Consciousness and the Black Feminist Imagination. She is also the editor of Tubman 200: The Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Project.