Whitney Houston was not the first black female singer to cross over to the pop world or the first to jump from music to movies.
But the legendary diva, who died one year ago today (February 11) at the age of 48 on the eve of the 2012 Grammy Awards, had such a profound, long-lasting impact on the pop-culture landscape that its ripples are still being felt by her legion of admirers, from such obvious acolytes as Beyoncé and Jennifer Hudson to rapper Nicki Minaj and just about every singer who steps up to the microphone on a reality singing show.
“I always called her the ’Princess of Pop’ because she had so much love for expressing her music and in all of the world she was #1,” said Narada Michael Walden, the producer/songwriter who helped produce such iconic hits as “How Will I Know,” “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” “So Emotional,” “Where Do Broken Hearts Go” and “All the Man That I Need.”
Walden, author of “Whitney Houston: The Voice, the Music, the Inspiration,” said the singer had a magic about her in the studio that gave him chills. Asked why her songs still cast such a huge shadow across the pop landscape, he said the answer was simple. “Because she had hits,” he said. “The songs are the stars and she was a star, but you put those together and it’s powerful. She’s like the Beatles, or the [Rolling] Stones or James Brown. Her songs were hits all around the world and what they did cracked the ice so deeply it changed our culture forever.”
Houston was what some people call a “singer’s singer,” according to Billboard senior R&B/Hip-Hop editor Gail Mitchell. Because her voice had so much emotion and she could give a song a feeling that anyone could relate to, Houston continues to be the barometer by which people measure a singer who can tap into something deeper.
“The last time I talked to Alicia Keys, she mentioned the influence Whitney still has on her in terms of her career and talent,” said Mitchell of one of the many tributes that have paid to Houston since her death. “You can count on one hand how many successful singers have done what Whitney did so effortlessly. She could traverse from fashion, she was a model on the cover of Seventeen, she did music videos that kicked in the door and she translated her pop & R&B stardom into movies. Beyoncé’s doing it with her music, her movies, her tour, her documentary … Queen Latifah parlayed rapping into movies and singing … they’ve definitely taken that lead.”
Recording Academy CEO/President Neil Portnow had a personal connection to Houston. He was working for Clive Davis when Whitney first got signed and he helped develop her 1985 debut album, Whitney.
“When I first met her as an 18-, 19-year-old, her talent was undeniable,” he told MTV News. “Her persona, her looks, her charm, her soul, but then it’s about her voice. Coming at the time she did, it was somewhat transitional and inspirational in the sense that there had probably never before been such a demarcation between African-American artist and R&B music and mainstream pop music.”
But, because of the quality of her voice and her ability to cross over to every listener and “connect on a human level in a way that affected everybody,” Portnow said Houston paved the way for many of today’s renaissance artists.
Singers like Beyoncé and Hudson, who are able to move successfully from music to movies in the same way Houston did, owe a debt to Whitney. “It’s fairly rare historically for someone who is successful in one arena to get accepted by critics and the public in another,” he said. “Whitney carries the mantle of artists who had all of those capabilities and used them to the fullest.”
He said he was confident the Beyoncé, Hudson and even rap-to-pop-to-“American Idol”-crossover Nicki Minaj would say that Whitney epitomized the notion of America as a land of opportunity. “You can do anything you put your heart and mind to,” he said of Houston’s legacy.
Walden said the music world would “absolutely” be different if it wasn’t for Houston. “Before Whitney, you were not used to seeing black females on the top of the charts consistently, having their own video on heavy rotation on MTV,” he said. “For her to be ringing that bell every time was a major occurrence and all of her achievements proved a wonderful gateway for the stars of today.”