EDITOR’S NOTE: I originally published this post on October 1, 2009, to celebrate the release of Whitney Houston’s long-awaited comeback album
I Look to You, and in light of yesterday’s tragic news, I can think of no more appropriate eulogy or tribute — particularly from and on a website that was designed for just such a purpose — than to revel one more time, with all the gratitude my soul can hold, in some truly great music. Need proof positive that the simple act of opening your mouth and belting out a magnificent melody (with perfect pitch, natch) is enough to transform, to CHANGE, the whole damn world? Keep reading.


Sherry Ann and I have this thing between us that we lovingly call “The Whitney Houston Rule,” which came to exist in the winter of 1998 when Miss Whitney became positively livid with the Recording Academy — not because they failed to nominate her soundtrack for The Preacher’s Wife for any major Grammys, but because they nominated her in what she perceived to be the wrong categories.  See, Whitney considered Wife to be the gospel album she had long dreamed of making, and while it was indeed top-heavy with selections from the God-is-love songbook, it also contained a handful of viable radio singles, enough to keep the boys at Hot 97 happy, and so the Academy deemed that the album was only eligible for the R&B categories, a decision which so enraged Whitney that she proceeded to embark on a nationwide press tour announcing her immense dissatisfaction over the news and proclaiming that she would not be showing up to that year’s ceremony to accept any awards she might win.  (The single funniest moment of this madness was when she appeared on Entertainment Tonight and slapped a deluxe diva diatribe — “I’m sick of work bein’ done and people not recognizin’ it!!” — upside poor Bob Goen’s head.  To this day, over a decade later, whenever either Sherry Ann or myself wish to give voice to something which frustrates or annoys us, we always preface it by cooing, Whitney-style, “No, Bob…”; and, to this day, the audio of Whitney’s hilarious hissyfit can be found on my iPod, where it continues to stay in pretty heavy rotation.)


Hence:  The Whitney Houston Rule, which simply states that only Whitney Houston (and, perhaps, the tiny number of other performers, who can almost certainly be counted on one hand, that reside in Houston’s rarefied echelon) is allowed to become angry about something as seemingly silly as getting nominated in the incorrect Grammy categories — which is to say, allowed to harbor such apparent hubris about her own work — because only Whitney Houston (et al) has the ability to back up such stunning gumption with the solid-gold goods.  As I indicated a couple of weeks ago in my review of Houston’s latest album, I Look to You (which I’m man enough to admit I like more every time I listen to it), there once was a glorious time when our pop stars didn’t fail us — a time when George had faith in something other than weed; when the man in Michael’s mirror was a black, beaming genius; when Prince’s doves cried platinum-plated tears of unfettered joy — and for the entire duration of that time, Whitney’s was the candle whose flame burned brightest, burned boldest.  Whitney had the look, and the style, and The Voice.  Give the songs in the following playlist one serious spin, and I have utterly no doubt that you’ll concur.


1.  “Greatest Love of All”Whitney Houston (from
Whitney Houston)  — Whitney Houston - Whitney Houston - Greatest Love of All —  funny that, of all the unforgettable hits from her first album, this — a glorious cover of an obscure George Benson tune — is the one that people still gravitate toward.

2.  “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)”Whitney Houston (from Whitney)  — Whitney Houston - Whitney - I Wanna Dance With Somebody —  1987:  one of the greatest years for pop music in the history of mankind.  The year of “Heaven is a Place on Earth” and “I Think We’re Alone Now” and “(I’ve Had the) Time of My Life” and “Faith” and “(I Just) Died in Your Arms” and “Midnight Blue” and “Don’t Shed a Tear” and “What Have I Done to Deserve This?”  The year of Club Nouveau and Kim Wilde, the year of Icehouse and INXS.  And the year that a young woman whose infallible, instantly inimitable way with a love song made her debut album one of the biggest-selling records in music history followed up all that jazz with a spectacular instant classic from left-field that made a whole nation of pop fans wanna be that titular “somebody.”  ’87 was loaded to the fucking gills with stem-to-stern brilliance, no question, and Whitney and co. still figured out how to slip one past the goalie.

3.  “Didn’t We Almost Have It All”Whitney Houston (from Whitney)  — Whitney Houston - Whitney - Didn't We Almost Have It All —  yeah, and speaking of infallible and instantly inimitable:  if this gloriously transcendent love-gone-wrong epic doesn’t give you chills, take out the earplugs, hit the back button on your iPod, and take another shot at it.  Completely flawless.

4.  “So Emotional” Whitney Houston (from Whitney)  — Whitney Houston - Whitney - So Emotional —  Whitney plays around with a surprising infusion of glossed-up Chaka-style funk — an impulse she would follow whole hog on her third album, 1990’s I’m Your Baby Tonight — and still comes up holding all aces.  The track that brought Houston’s peers (and competitors, you better believe) to the horrifying realization that there didn’t exist a genre of music whose stylings Whitney couldn’t nail to the wall just by opening her golden mouth.

5. “Miracle”Whitney Houston (from I’m Your Baby Tonight)  — Whitney Houston - I'm Your Baby Tonight - Miracle —  I’d wager you won’t find anybody foolish enough to declare on the record that this seemingly non-descript tune — a minor top twenty hit in the spring of 1991 — is their favorite Whitney track.  (But, hey, I always did march to the beat of my own drumline.)  It doesn’t sound like much all through the first half, but if you just hang around until the three minute mark or so, Whitney loosens the leash on those powerful pipes and lets ’em soar.  And even if the song remains syrupy sweet, it also somehow becomes irresistible.  If only for the heartbreakingly, um, miraculous way she manages to be vulnerable as she wails the phrase, “I wonduh if I could y-y-yorrrrrrrrr meer-uh-cuh-uh-uh-ull,” I think this, believe it or not, is my favorite Whitney track.  (Damn right, I said it!)

6.  “My Name is Not Susan”Whitney Houston (from
I’m Your Baby Tonight)  — Whitney Houston - I'm Your Baby Tonight - My Name Is Not Susan —  a true story, from this past Labor Day:  A and I were driving around in search of a Panera cinnamon roll (which, evidently, to my immense chagrin, weren’t being made that Monday, a fact we didn’t come to realize until we had driven all over town to most of the restaurant chain’s local outlets) when this tune — a minor radio hit (that shoulda been much, much bigger) in the spring of 1991 — popped up in rotation.  A was doing that maddening thing he often does — the one where he’s not really listening, wholly in spite of the fact that I’ve made it crystal clear that he oughta be — and, finally, three-quarters of the way through the song, he chimed in and asked why Houston kept repeating what her name isn’t.  I immediately started over at the beginning, dramatically reciting the song’s lyrics in order to delineate its story.  I then went on to explain that if he ever dared to call out another man’s name while in the throes of a late-night dream, he, too, would find out real quick-like what my name is and isn’t, and with roughly as much vicious vehemence as Miss Whitney employs herein.

7.  “Anymore” Whitney Houston (from I’m Your Baby Tonight)  — Whitney Houston - I'm Your Baby Tonight - Anymore —  this shockingly sexy kiss-off jam from Babyface (who turns up in a climactic cameo) wasn’t a single.  Bump that foolishness:  it should have been.

8.  “The Star-Spangled Banner”Whitney Houston (from Whitney: The Greatest Hits)  — Whitney Houston - Whitney - The Greatest Hits - The Star Spangled Banner —  I’ve utterly no use for superficially patriotic flag-waving, in any capacity.  But having said that, allow me to humbly add this:  if Whitney’s magnificent version of this country’s national anthem — performed at the 1991 Super Bowl, just as Operation Desert Storm was getting underway — doesn’t stir your soul even a little, or make you goddamned proud to be an American (even a little!), your heart is probably made of granite.  This song has been performed one hundred million times, by roughly an equal number of names; good luck finding anyone who will argue that this version isn’t the best.

9.  “I Will Always Love You”Whitney Houston (from
The Bodyguard: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)  — Whitney Houston - The Bodyguard (Original Soundtrack Album) - I Will Always Love You —  forget the fact that it became so overplayed and overexposed that by the end of its then-historic original chart run, you thought you’d rather claw out your eyeballs from the inside of your skull than listen to it ever again, and take your mind back to the first time you heard this sterling, shattering cover of Dolly Parton’s tender ’70s classic.  To the moment when you knew you were hearing something special, something unique, something undeniable. Even in a clock positively brimming with magnificence, this remains Whitney’s finest hour as a vocalist.  (Don’t even let yourself imagine how incalculably differently Houston’s career and life would have turned out had Plan A for The Bodyguard‘s love theme — a cover of “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted,” an idea which was jettisoned early after Paul Young recorded his own remake of the tune (and scored a big radio hit with same) for the Fried Green Tomatoes soundtrack earlier in the year — panned out.)

10.  “Step By Step”Whitney Houston (from
The Preacher’s Wife: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)  — Whitney Houston - The Preacher's Wife (Original Soundtrack Album) - Step By Step —  it’s not technically a duet, though it’s a fun fantasy upon which to fixate:  Whitney takes an obscure Annie Lennox cast-off from the Diva sessions, lays her own pristine performance atop Annie’s original beat — deciding in the process to keep Annie’s harmony vocal — and creates a unique, eminently fascinating meld of two of the most terrific voices in modern music history.

11.  “When You Believe”Whitney Houston & Mariah Carey (from My Love is Your Love)  — Mariah Carey & Whitney Houston - My Love Is Your Love - When You Believe —  the diva faceoff to end them all, but instead of wasting energy futilely trying to declare a winner, focus on the genuinely inspiring message.  And just try not to get goosebumps when Whitney sings the words, “We were moving mountains / long before we knew we could….”

12. “Heartbreak Hotel [Hex Hector Radio Mix]”
Whitney Houston featuring Faith Evans & Kelly Price —  Whitney Houston featuring Faith Evans & Kelly Price - Whitney - The Greatest Hits - Heartbreak Hotel
13. “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay [Thunderpuss Mix]”Whitney Houston (from Whitney: The Greatest Hits)  — Whitney Houston - Whitney - The Greatest Hits - It's Not Right But It's Okay
—  released, and initially lost at sea, amid a deafening stampede of superstar releases in the fall of 1998, Houston’s fourth studio album, My Love is Your Love, was floundering commercially heading into the spring of 1999.  But then a funny thing happened:  Daddy Clive commissioned a handful of blazing hot remixes for the album’s first two official singles, and the record took off like a rocket.  In their original forms, neither one of these tracks is likely what you’d consider stellar, but their propulsive dance mixes — particularly Thunderpuss’ brilliantly frenetic take on “Okay,” which climaxes with a trademark, glass-shattering Whitney high note — niftily transform them into lit sticks of aural dynamite.

14. “Could I Have This Kiss Forever”Whitney Houston & Enrique Iglesias (from Whitney: The Greatest Hits)  — Whitney Houston with Enrique Iglesias - Whitney - The Greatest Hits - Could I Have This Kiss Forever —  they were both red-hot at the time:  she was coming off of her glorious My Love renaissance, and he was riding the momentum of “Bailamos,” his platinum debut.  Makes it all the more odd that this wasn’t a major hit.

15. “Million Dollar Bill”Whitney Houston (from
I Look to You)  — Whitney Houston - I Look to You - Million Dollar Bill —  this solidly entertaining little piffle may seem a tad slight on first glance, especially when you measure it pound for pound against Houston’s earlier mid-tempo triumphs, but listen closer: on one of the few tracks from I Look to You which, blessedly, doesn’t reference in any way Houston’s well-publicized personal problems, Alicia Keys rather deftly constructs a fluid groove for the surprisingly spry-of-voice Whitney to slide perfectly into.


1 response to “learning to love yourself is the greatest
(or: why it’s not called the debbie gibson rule)”

  1. the buzz from A.:

    With such a great variety of distinct sounds, yet all of them quintessentially Whitney Houston, this playlist has been a pleasure to go through. Of the eight (!) songs I’ve chosen, three I knew even before this playlist came into being:

    1. “I Will Always Love You,” thanks to the simple (yet sometimes hard-to-believe) fact that I do not live under a rock;

    2. “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me),” thanks to at least two Alamo Drafthouse Sing-Alongs.

    3. “Could I Have This Kiss Forever,” thanks to some random chance in 2006

    Here are the other five songs, all thanks to this playlist:

    4. “Miracle”
    5. “My Name is Not Susan”
    6. “Step by Step”
    7. “Heartbreak Hotel”
    8. The US National Anthem

    Finally, an honorable mention to “Didn’t We Almost Have It All.” Whatever y’all may think about the latest Whitney Houston record, there’s no denying that she is an amazing singer.