She wasn’t Etta or Aretha, and she certainly wasn’t Diana (an artist from whom she vociferously distanced herself and who was, herself, at the Grammys, conspicuously grief-free when her time at the podium rolled around). She lacked the dangerous energy of Tina’s high-octane routines and the erotic funk of Chaka at the peak of the Soul Train era. But in many ways she was the sum of all of those artists combined, rearranged and reimagined for the Reagan-Bush ’80s. In those early, candy-colored “How Will I Know” years, riding the edge of her teens with sparkly bows and mile-high crimp locks, she channeled Etta’s youthful chutzpah, yoked it with the Queen of Soul’s vocal confidence and power and Tina’s discipline and gently folded in a bit of Khan’s sensuality so as to create a pop heroine the world had never before seen or heard at that point in time—a black female Top 40–meets-MTV protagonist whose sound welcomed us to a bright new crossover world of what might be, where Huxtable brownstones and an emerging black middle class made cultural integration seemingly more palpable and more palatable to the masses for a brief moment in time.
As the obituaries roll in and the tributes pour out about Whitney Houston’s ability to hit those celebrated and “magical” high notes, surely the most overlooked of her many achievements as an artist is that she is perhaps the first black female artist to take the technical virtuosity of her skills culled in the church and successfully transpose them onto Arista-industry driven, market-tested Top 40 pop arrangements… read more at link for The Nation…
About the Author
Daphne A. Brooks, a professor of English and African-American studies at Princeton University