Long before Lady Gaga rolled around nearly naked in viscous goo, Rihanna showed off her S&M fetish, Christina squeezed into leather peek-a-boo chaps or Nicki Minaj dressed up like a male fantasy Barbie, Whitney Houston proved you could make a fuss without making a spectacle.
The legendary R&B singer, who died Saturday at age 48 after reportedly consuming prescription drugs and alcohol on the eve of the 54th annual Grammy Awards, became one of the most important artists of the early music-video era by taking the road less traveled.
While such fellow trailblazers as Michael Jackson and Madonna created video fantasy worlds full of monsters, gangsters, street-fighting men and naughty brides, Houston mostly skipped the drama and stood front and center in her most iconic clips doing the thing that she did best: singing her heart out.
With her model-worthy looks and luminous smile, Houston knew exactly how to telegraph her charm through the TV — and later on the big screen in “The Bodyguard” and three other starring roles — which may explain why most of her most notable videos involve just a bit of perfunctory storyline and focus on her performance.
Here are some of our favorite Houston video moments:
“I Will Always Love You”: Is it even possible to come up with a concept for a clip that could match the grandeur and emotional heft of the breakout single from “The Bodyguard” soundtrack? It is, and smartly, that big idea was to focus on an elegantly suited up, forlorn-looking Houston sitting in an empty theater and staring into the distance as she watched clips from the movie scroll by. Houston blasted into the song’s towering finale via a quick zoom to her face, eyes closed, and then popping open as she hit the money note. How bad was Houston? She perfectly delivered the titanically tear-jerking drama of the song without ever once getting up from her chair.
“I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)”: Whitney did ballads like nobody’s business, but she also knew how to throw down, as she did in the “Dance” video, the first single from her second album, Whitney. Dressed in a body-hugging purple dress, towering curly wig and colorful dangly earrings, Houston again focused on singing directly into the camera while a series of dancers showed off their moves in wide-shot cutaways. When it was Houston’s time to shine, though, the camera pulled in close to capture that sparkle in her eye and that 1,000-watt beam as she changed through a series of going-to-the-club outfits and mostly shimmied adorably in place.
“How Will I Know”: The third single from Houston’s debut album was the one that changed everything. The clip helped introduce the singer to a wider audience when it became one of the first videos by a black female singer to earn heavy rotation on MTV. The concept was simple: Whitney in another of her trusty big hair bows and sexy minidresses sang right at the lens while dancers high-kicked and sashayed through a rainbow-paint-splashed maze of a set. All Houston had to do was walk, sing and smile and the rest was history. We’re still not sure, though, what was up with that dude in the half-suit, half-wedding dress.
“Greatest Love of All”: The final single released from Houston’s debut album helped cement the M.O. for the classic Whitney video. Standing on yet another stage in an empty theater, Houston, wearing one of her beloved leather jackets, belts the big ballad with vigor as stage hands work around her, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the star of the show is crushing it right in front of them. While there appears to be some backstory involving Houston making her stage debut as a child, once Whit changes into that beaded white dress and matching chunky earrings to do her slinky saunter to center stage for the big finale … forget about it.
“I’m Your Baby Tonight”: The title track from Houston’s third album, released in 1990, is what passed for a high-concept clip from the singer. Dressed in a white suit, with matching bowler and cane, Houston hip-swayed through a Cotton Club-type nightspot before transporting into a Manhattan penthouse. She walked through another mirror into a third scene where she was all three members of a Supremes-style girl group and finally ended up in a beatnik club, her haired pulled back as she rocked chopped bangs. As always, the focus was on images of Houston lip-synching the song’s lyrics with attitude as the camera lingered on her luminous skin and smile.
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