Whitney Houston is dead

Whitney Houston is dead


norman lebrecht

February 12, 2012

The pop diva, ever to be remembered for I Will Always Love You’, was found dead in a Los Angeles hotel room, shortly before a pre-Grammys party. She was 48 and had a history of addiction and decline.

The late-1980s were her heyday. Her 1991 Superbowl rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner was a standout, hitting the top effortlessly and then upping it half a falsetto octave.

She was married for 14 years to the turbulent soul singer, Bobby Brown. She was two sizes larger than life.

The National Anthem:


  • Adam Krims says:

    She is indeed dead; but I am a bit puzzled about to what this refers, with “upping it a falsetto octave”. She does indeed add a falsetto embellishment on “o’er the land of the free”, which is, of course, “the top”, in terms of range; but her embellishment adds a fourth to the high (I think) E of “free”, extending to the A above, not an entire octave to E. (That is not to say that the singing is not good — it is perfectly fine — but rather just to correct what seems to me an inaccurate description of the embellishment.)

  • Here in Germany, I can’t watch the video of W. Houston singing the American national anthem because it is being blocked by GEMA.

  • szidon says:

    a better quality clip of late Houston’s 1991 Superbowl rendition


  • Brian says:

    Of course, Norman, as much as everyone compliments Ms. Houston’s singing, the decision to alter the meter from 3/4 to 4/4 has the impact of turning it nearly into a “pop anthem.”

    • Matthew B. Tepper says:

      Much as I’d like to observe de mortuis nil nisi bonum, I have to say that for me singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” in 4/4 is what the kids might call “automatic fail.” Likewise (and this much I am directing at pop singers in general), Key didn’t write “way hay” or “woo hoo” into the lyrics, so those nonsense phrases should be omitted. And finally, there is much beautiful gospel music which benefits from long and ornate melismas, and this practice can also add enormously to some pop songs; but I would prefer it be kept out of our National Anthem.

  • Eric Benjamin says:

    An interesting phenomenon (and, to many, lamentable) that in the US the singing of the national anthem is not a unifying exercise in group singing. Rather, we have given it over to pop vocalists to turn it into an exercise in virtuosity – a personal vehicle, as the crowd evaluates. I wonder how would the crowd would respond if Renee Fleming were to render a more or less straightforward rendition at the SuperBowl?

    Ms.Houston could belt it out, no question – did she ever sing anything that wasn’t in the high-emo vein? And I think she was handicapped with some of the worst song material – “I Will Always Love You” and “The Greatest GIft” are terrible. I might look to see if she ever tried any Gershwin or Great American Songbook standards.

    • With a range of an octave and a fifth, our national anthem will never be a “unifying exericse in group singing.” A range like that requires a trained voice. And that’s to say nothin’ of all that bombs bursting in air stuff, which is a little perverse when you think about it. Who wants to see body parts laying around. Sorry ’bout that. Perhaps we’ll someday get around to makin’ our national anthem “America the Beautiful.”

      • Eric Benjamin says:

        My thoughts exactly, actually. Think of it – one lucky shot by one of Norman’s kinsmen and Francis Scott Key would never have composed his popular doggerel. Musically and textually, “America the Beautiful” is much to be preferred. I said as much on a local call-in radio show once and was bashed by gun rights partisans who accused me of denigrating the Constitution and the sacrifice of the men and women in the military.

        Still, one wonders about the reception that would be given to a classical artist like Ms.Fleming, among others, who are perfectly capable of managing the octave and a fifth, but without the vocal pyrotechniques (though it would be fun to hear someone go all “Queen of the Night” on the rockets and bombs part.).

        I suspect that, even with a more singable tune, the media would employ the designated singer for high profile occasions.

        • Greg Hlatky says:

          Insofar as Key – negotiating for the release of prisoners – was on British ships (HMS Minden and HMS Surprise) during the British bombardment of Fort McHenry, it would have had to be a very bad shot indeed.

          • Eric Benjamin says:

            I meant that if one cannon shot had hit the flagpole, the flag would not have still been there for Key to exult in its symbolic value.

      • Greg Hlatky says:

        I suppose the French then should hustle to get rid of La Marseillaise, the lyrics for which are extraordinarily bloodthirsty. But in a lighter vein, here’s Albert Brooks on auditions for a new National Anthem: http://youtu.be/b7JBrN_R6es

      • Torun Kirby Torbo says:

        I don’t think the octave and a half is a problem. We have exactly that in Norway’s national anthem as well, and it’s just a matter of starting low enough, to avoid casualties at the end. Here’s an example of spontaneous singing. And although this is an extreme situation, the fact that all these people know the text off the top of their heads indicate the frequent use of this song. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R8ZwnNVXG6w&feature=related

  • I read that Whitney was on a few prescription drugs including Xanax. Xanax is incredibly addictive, in that it only lasts for 6 hours, and once you are on it for a week your body has stopped 20% of the production of it’s own sedative. Thus, if you are on it for a week, and you don’t take it every 6 hours you’re assaulted with more anxiety and withdrawal symptoms, which can last a week or more. An awfully cruel way to get someone addicted, someone already very vulnerable. In reading over reports of her last few days, it seems that she had perhaps skipped taking Xanax. She was sweating heavily (a withdrawal symptom of Xanax) and, in getting ready to go to a party where she would be sitting at the same table as Dionne Warwick her cousin, she maybe took a Xanax, and then decided to take a bath – and thanks to the Xanax and exhaustion from all her previous exhilerating behavior at parties the two prior days, she fell asleep and drowned. I think this might be what you’ll find out when they’re done determining how she died. I don’t know what happened, but this could be the case.

    What’s incredibly sad, is that it’s way to easy labeling Whitney as having addiction problems or having an addictive personality. She, with her voice, was someone that could touch upon the human condition, and have something universal to say. What does this have to do with addictions? I’m not saying she shouldn’t have stayed away from the controlled substance on both sides of the legal spectrum she got involved with. I’m saying that it doesn’t help to further traumatize someone with labels that make out that there’s something wrong with her, as if there’s no underlying cause that needs attention. Do these people labeling her know anything about what she went through in life? Growing up marginalized as a minority: being black and being a woman. Entering the entertainment world, and changing the whole image for what it was to be a woman and an afro-american; and then yet again, finding that such celebrity wasn’t the ultimate dream it was made out to be. Who has gone through this in life?

    And music judges no one. I’m sure that the one thing she found was that love was stronger than everything that would have seemed defeating to other people, people who hadn’t been through what she had. People who would judge her behavior, not seeing that there was a reason she was looking for an escape route.

    How about looking for the reason she (or anyone who had been through what she had been) looked for an escape; and in acknowledging that need, allowing one that had always been there for her, the escape there was in music which is love, which judges no one, but instead restores the human condition. No, music isn’t just a stimulant for sensual escapism. Just like air, it’s a need; neither judge anyone. And what she did wasn’t about the money she earned, or her fame. She raised the human condition to something noble, something that was there even when you’re marginalized in life or anything else that might seem defeating.

    And if she didn’t have an “addictive personality,” she wouldn’t have experienced anything in life that called for an “escape”, and then maybe she wouldn’t have had anything to say that would have touched people the way she did. That’s the difference. That’s also the loss. Why was the focus on she’s “addictive” as if that’s the story, or even that there’s enough information there to make a true story!? And who she really was is not about this label “addictive personality”or “drug addict” it’s what she had to say: what she had been through – something that she somehow knew only music had the non-judgment and the love to penetrate through, not losing sight of what part of it came from love, from music, from creativity.

    • Touche. There is always a reason behind the need to ease the pain; emotional wounds that are dulled by drug use are still there. Compassion for her pain might be a more respectful approach than to demonize her and deny her reality by labeling her an addict and setting her to the side as though she were just yesterdays trash. Pharmaceuticals – the easy way to deny what they are doing is to focus on those to whom they are prescribed. Yet – the doctors who do this prescribing offer nothing in the way of emotional healing…only the numbing effects of drugs and the tolerance levels that go up as the dose is increased. So celebrities with troubled lives are painted as “addicts” instead of the victims of pharmacology and medical malpractice. If our “mental health” system was even the least bit effective the assumption would be that we would see less of this and other physical addictions and dependent behaviors….connecting the dots is difficult when the smoke screen of blaming the victim prevails.

  • Janey says:

    Josh Groban singing the Anthem as close to “as written” as I’ve seen in years, below. The crowd responded well here, but I do wonder what the Superbowl crowd would do.


    • Brian says:

      My problem is always in the way that these SSB singers are introduced: “Here to perform…..” Should be “here to lead us….” but as it has already been stated, the song is bloody hard for all but trained vocalists to sing. And to suggest changing it to a better tune with less bombastic lyrics? One would think that the darn tune (and text) had come over in 1620 with the pilgrims. Nope, the SSB didn’t become our national anthem until (someone correct me if I am wrong) 1931.

  • Derek says:

    Plenty of chord substitutions here in Whitney’s performance, which is what a good “arrangement” is all about. People, just enjoy 🙂 🙂