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Whitney Houston: A voice that destroyed itself

What was it about Houston's voice that reached beyond the emotional confines of her records?

Whitney Houston was the most-awarded female artist of all time, and “I Will Always Love You" is among the best-selling singles in history. But it was her nickname - "The Voice" - that said it all. While some pop stars are entertainers, Houston was always a singer - and a singer's singer at that.

What was it about Houston's voice that was able to reach beyond the emotional confines of her often anodyne pop records? While there have been female vocalists with greater ranges (both Mariah Carey and Christina Aguilera outstrip Houston on this front), and those with better technique (Céline Dion has sustained her voice into middle-age while Carey's has collapsed at the edges), in her prime, Houston's combination of range, power and vocal control was unique.

Think of the contrast between Houston's cover of "I Will Always Love You" and the blandly comfortable Dolly Parton original: how audacious to open a track with 45 seconds of unaccompanied singing. Uncluttered by tricks of production, we hear her voice naked, distinguished in her early years by an unusually high range (pop females tend to be mezzo-sopranos or contraltos) and an ability to "belt" - to use her chest rather than head voice - at high pitch, giving her sound a particular brilliance and power.

Whitney's power

Jennifer Hudson, one of a generation of Houston-inspired singers, has spoken of the difference between "being able to sing and knowing how to". This artistry - the combination of instinctive musicality and technical ability - was the key to Houston's success, allowing her to keep melodies clean, to improvise and showcase her instrument without muddying textures.

We hear this in a song like “I Run To You", whose melodic simplicity and repetition allows Houston to treat it like a classical singer would a baroque da capo aria. The repeats gain the most ornate and expressive embellishments, as Houston anticipates beats, accents syncopated passing notes and brings out the aspirates or glottals at the start of each word.

None of this quite adds up to Houston's particular genius, however. She sang as she lived, pushing herself to the limits of her physical capacity, always an element of self-destruction in her sound.

Trained on the job, learning her craft from listening to her gospel-singer mother and singing in church, Houston picked up bad vocal habits. These early on became nodules on her vocal chords, putting a strain on the voice that meant every note she sang damaged it just a little more.

So, when we listen to Houston's records, even those from her peak, we are hearing a voice destroying itself, witnessing an artist, Red Shoes-style, dancing herself to death with the force of her passion. It is this destructive urge that made Houston great, and this same instinct that may, ultimately, have killed her.

Alexandra Coghlan is the New Statesman's classical music critic

This article first appeared in the 20 February 2012 issue of the New Statesman, How do we stop Iran getting the bomb?