Whitney Houston was undeniably one of the greatest and most influential vocalists – if not the greatest – of all time, but was unfortunately yet another highly successful and well-respected musician who fell victim to the pressures of fame and drug addiction to eventually suffer a very tragic – yet also sadly predictable – fall from grace. We’re all aware of the achievements Whitney, a.k.a. “The Voice” accomplished throughout her lifetime: she sold an estimated 200 million records, had a string of worldwide and record-breaking number one albums and singles, won well over 400 awards, was a talented actress as well as singer, helped bring African-American artists (especially females) to the fore in a formerly white-dominated music industry (particularly on MTV) and influenced a legion of other vocalists who came after her by setting a standard in pop singing. She was well-known for critically-acclaimed performances – many of which she did with no dancing (or even any moving from the spot whatsoever) or no backup dancers, no visual effects and backed by a full orchestra that her powerful voice could be heard above (first video) – and her ability to memorise audiences, as well as take other people’s songs to make them her own with her unique vocal stylings (second video).
But what happened? Why did she allow her once spectacular voice to worsen so much and so quickly? In this blog post I will not only look at the background to Whitney’s career and analyse the varying reasons behind her stark vocal decline, but I will also explain why I will and do defend – with my own subjective opinions, as well as facts and evidence – against those who ignorantly claim she had “lost her star quality, voice or talent”.
While I could ramble on forever about what was so brilliant and seemingly flawless about Whitney’s voice, I’ll try and keep this short. She was the perfect combination of a vocalist with an incomparable timbre (yes, that’s subjective but I have yet to come across someone who didn’t like it) – rich and velvety with a slightly metallic and at times almost operatic-like sound to it; a large, even, well-supported and connected range; heaps of emotion and soul; a lot of power and a huge volume output; incredible vocal stamina; a well-controlled vibrato; strong and resonant belts and a full, piercing head register; and she had a host of technical skills and great musicianship that allowed her to do almost anything with her voice. And when she sang live, she was – unlike many others – able to replicate or surpass the same tone, power and range she displayed on record on stage as well. It’s no wonder she earned the simple yet self-explanatory nickname “The Voice”. From 1985 to 1991, Whitney was a force to be reckoned with, with very little in the way of a worthy contemporary rival – even Mariah Carey and Céline Dion, as brilliant as they are in their own right – could not match her in terms of power, the purity of tone, fluidity of lyrical phrasing or consistent live performances.
However, just like a musical instrument and one’s body or a muscle, if you don’t look after the voice properly, it will start to weaken and decrease in quality. For the first few years of her career Whitney seemed to take good care of herself and her voice (even with smoking and drugs she reportedly began doing in her mid to late 20s) and despite her busy schedule she was able to maintain it well with very few below par performances. But she was often still performing even when she wasn’t 100% well, and when most singers would cancel, she would continue with the show – a factor that would also eventually play a part in her vocal decline.
Then there is the questionable debate as to how technically perfect she was as a vocalist, for she was never formally trained, having only learnt what she knew from gospel church and listening to and imitating her idols (including her mother). Many vocal coaches say that from a vocal pedagogy standpoint, her signature belts were often produced with an unhealthily and incorrectly placed or tense larynx – yet they were (surprisingly) still executed with little to no obvious strain and with so much power, volume and clarity. She was also known for pushing her chest voice dangerously high, where trained singers would mix their voice, but Whitney never learnt how to do this properly and constantly singing like that for so long and particularly during The Bodyguard world tour with very little rest, and of course coupled with smoking and drug use, meant her voice was undoubtedly going to experience problems. She had begun smoking from quite a young age and passed off the outrage by arguing that her mother, cousin Dionne Warwick and Aretha Franklin all smoked as well, and it was revealed not long after her death that Whitney had initially started doing drugs in the 80s – introduced to them by her own brother who said that while he was guilty for getting her into drugs, he claimed that during that time it was “acceptable in society because everyone was doing it”. It was soon to become apparent that the once seemingly perfect athlete of the singing world was not as flawless or innocent as many thought she was.
Even though for the most part of 92-94 her voice was at its peak and probably strongest (it had matured, was richer than a few years earlier and her lower register was more solid too), Whitney’s rigorous schedule took a gradual toll on her health and voice and by 1994 she had developed nodules on her vocal cords – she was unable to take time off to recover and the last thing she probably wanted to do was risk losing her voice completely if she had them surgically removed (like Julie Andrews). It was a double-edged sword and she seemed to choose the more predictable, and maybe even the best option of keeping them (though it must be noted it has never been confirmed whether she did actually keep them or not). She was stressed out – trying to find ways of relaxing and escaping her hectic life, while at the same time was torn between having to live up to the clean-cut, pop princess image that she was marketed as being and branching away from it (this was the same time she had just married notorious bad boy Bobby Brown). The world saw her as nothing less than a superhuman with an otherworldly voice – another huge amount of pressure she had to deal with as many expected her to keep her voice in peak condition and always sound great. And as bad as it might sound, one can almost sympathise with her as to why she turned to smoking and drugs to relieve that stress (though I don’t actually condone it).
Whitney’s voice began to show signs of deterioration since recording songs for Waiting to Exhale in 1995; her tone was slightly more gravelly and when singing live there was the odd time when she sounded more and more out of breath or would dodge or crack on higher belts or head voice notes (see video above). However, on The Preacher’s Wife soundtrack (1996) she still seemed to be in great condition – in spite of rumours that she was doing drugs every day around this time – and when she duetted with Mariah Carey in 1998 and released her My Love Is Your Love album her voice, though a bit deeper than it was only a few years before, was largely still in tact and her power was still there even if her performances were not as consistently good (see the performance from 1999 below). Around this time she was definitely more of a mezzo, whereas before she was a darker-voiced soprano.
From 2001 until 2008, Whitney’s voice was in its most inconsistent and probably worst state – up until 2004 there were times when she still had lots of power and volume and was able to unleash it, despite a much rougher and more strained sound on the higher belts and a limited, diminished head voice range that was once effortless, beautiful and expansive (check out the first video below of her at the 2004 World Music Awards). Rumours were rife about her personal life and her “bitchy” and “volatile” personality yet she was still the star of the show at the World Music Awards. But then between 2005 and 2008, she barely made any public appearances – let alone performances – and that seems to be when the main decline really began as her drug-fuelled life began to engulf her, with there being reports that she completely lost her voice and could barely utter a sound. During this time it was sad and at times, painful to watch or listen to her, especially if you think back to how her voice was just five to ten years before, however that is not to say she could no longer sing at all. In 2008, she performed “I Will Always Love You” (second video below) and while it’s obvious her voice was not in top shape, there are still hints of power, some spine-tingling moments and a nice little bit of head voice in there too.
In 2009, Whitney returned to the big time with I Look To You – it was probably the biggest comeback by a living legend the popular music world had seen (though would have been topped by Michael Jackson if he had survived) – and it seemed her voice had started to recover in parts; her lower register was husky yet stronger than before and some of her mid-range belts still had quite a bit of richness in them – but above all, the self-confidence and passion for singing and music that we knew she had in her was back and obvious to see after the past few years of trying to clean up and get back on track.
Prior to this, hardly anyone seemed to believe she could make a comeback (either to the music scene or just get her life back on track after hitting rock bottom) but she did and the fact that the album sold 5 million copies worldwide, hit No.1 in the US and No.3 in the UK and “Million Dollar Bill” was a Top 5 single in the UK showed that although figures and sales were not on the same scale as material she released 15 years before, she was still able to stir up interest and make an impact. Whitney was certainly no longer a “has-been” and could still draw crowds and sell records purely based on her name and legacy, whether or not people truly enjoyed her new music or whether they were simply interested in listening to and watching her just to see how she now looked and sounded, knowing full well she wasn’t the same person or had the same voice as she used to. And despite mixed reviews of her Nothing but Love World Tour and reports of fans angrily leaving her concerts, nearly all shows were sold out and it grossed US$36 million without doing a leg in America, which would surely have pushed it further up the rankings if she had done one.
Before she began touring at the end of 2009, most of Whitney’s public appearances and performances were strong and well-received but when the tour started, her voice began to show more inconsistencies again; on some occasions she was still good despite the circumstances, but her overall physical health was not. So what made her carry on? In my opinion – one name, two words: Clive Davis. Even though I know he should be commended for discovering and mentoring Whitney and helping her to reach international superstardom, as well as for bringing her back to form, I do believe her overly trusting attitude towards him meant it was easier for him to instil his own confidence in her and convince her that she was well enough to keep going even though it was obvious she couldn’t and shouldn’t have. Did he really believe in her that much or was the chance of banking in on what was a potentially big fortune for him just too tempting? And was her love of singing, performing and wanting to entertain her lifelong fans too much for her to keep up with and fulfil? Whatever the reason, Whitney toured until June 2010 – with some forced cancellations – whether she truly wanted to or not, and though she her strength and courage to do so is surprising, it was another factor that aided her second swift downward spiral from her return to the top. And of course, with the backlash from so-called “fans” and critics added to her stress and poor health, it is no wonder she once again couldn’t resist escaping the harshness of reality by unfortunately getting back into drugs as she reportedly did.
However, whether she could “still sing” has always been a debate; nobody’s talent for singing and ear for music disappears just like that. Sure she struggled and her once glorious tone was gone and had changed drastically but when she didn’t attempt to belt or sing too high Whitney was still, for the most part, able to sing in tune, in time and in the right key – and with a vocal range that spanned around 2.5 octaves, this was not a huge loss from her original range of 3 octaves 10 years or more before. While it’s true and needless to say that she was no longer able to sing in the same way she could 15 years before, to say she couldn’t sing at all or any more is a gross over-exaggeration but it was astonishing and good to see and hear how well she could still pull it off after years of abuse. Check out the videos below where her voice sounded more robust and as powerful than it had in recent years for proof.
It should be noted that singing is an art – and while there are of course correct or “healthy” ways in which one should sing, each and every person is entitled to express their art in their own way – and Whitney was always a master of this art. In her final years, from a technical level she was to put it bluntly, really bad, but from an artistic level her lyrical phrasing (even with now limited breath control and stamina), vibrato, use of dynamics and melisma were still skills she could employ and did so very well. And if she wasn’t able to perform a song like the original, she would do something different with it – change the arrangement, key, tempo and play around with the phrasing – like the true and adventurous musician that she was. Other examples of her musicality in her later years include clips of her singing “I Have Nothing” with a fan in Australia and immediately being able to tell the girl was singing in the wrong key after just a few notes, and her helping to mentor the X Factor contestants in 2009 by giving them tips on expressing themselves, melodies and harmonies.
In 2011 and 2012, Whitney made few appearances in public and didn’t do any major performances but she did get back into acting again by co-starring in Sparkle, released in 2012 after her death (she died only a few months after filming finished). When the film and soundtrack was released, although lead actress Jordin Sparks recorded more songs and was obviously in better voice, it was Whitney’s heart-stirring yet bittersweet version of “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” that was the main scene stealer – though her voice was raspy and a fraction of what it used to be, she could still sing with soul and her distinctive vocal style of phrasing and runs were still there. Her duet “Celebrate” with Jordin also saw Whitney still managing to shine through in spite of the younger singer’s higher and clearer voice, proving that even this older and less vocally capable Whitney cannot be overshadowed. Even her final live performance, where she got on stage with her friend, R&B and gospel singer Kelly Price (with whom she worked with several times) for an impromptu duet to sing a few lines of “Jesus Loves Me”, Whitney’s star power and stage presence prompted the crowd to go wild even though her voice was very coarse and barely audible in the video.
“I rise and fall, yet through it all, this much remains…”
It seems that whenever immensely talented people like Whitney and others fall apart, people are quick to call it “a waste of their talent” and point fingers directly at the superstars themselves, and while most of the time they are partly or mainly to blame for their own downward spiral, we must remember that as soon as they share their wondrous gifts with us they are immediately subject to the pressures of having to live up to their seemingly perfect images. Whitney never seemed to catch a break from touring, performing or recording and though smoking and drugs most certainly played a huge part of her decline, the stress she suffered, the pressure she faced, the hounding media and even her not-so flawless voice in itself was in fact to blame as well. For example Aretha Franklin – a self-confessed chain smoker for many decades – and Chaka Khan, who also battled with drug abuse and alcoholism for many years, are still fantastic singers today despite their past lifestyle choices because their techniques are better and they eventually managed to find the strength to quit their bad habits completely.
At the end of the day, though the quality of Whitney’s voice deteriorated significantly, she was still a great singer and musician. Within 10 years of arriving on the music scene she had created her legacy of numerous timeless pop, R&B and soul tunes with her larger than life voice that quickly went on to become one of the most influential voices of both her time and of all-time. Up until today I have yet to have heard a singer – both professional and amateur – who has sung the likes of “I Will Always Love You” or “I Have Nothing” and displayed the same amount of power and vocal control or the had a quintessential timbre that was as beautiful, soulful and retained the same quality throughout their entire range. Even in her later years there were few singers out there who could match Whitney’s combined mix of both all-round vocal abilities and star quality – including her rivals on the charts from the 90s (Mariah and Céline); Mariah’s voice began to show signs of deterioration in the 2000s and was on and off-point a lot, while Céline’s nasality has always been an acquired taste for most people.
Anyway, thank you for reading this incredibly long post and I hope it helped open your eyes and ears to the many factors that not only made Whitney Houston “The Voice” that she was, but also aided her decline and will also understand or agree with me on why, even after she began to fall, she was still talented and may have squandered or neglected her gift but never lost it.