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Let’s ignore the uncanny timing of Whitney Houston passing the night before the Grammys, a showcase for music royalty conceived to honor pop queens like her. A better measure of Houston’s legacy is sitting right on top of Billboard‘s two flagship charts the very week of her untimely death.
Taking over No. 1 on the Hot 100, with her latest hit “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You),” is Kelly Clarkson, a singer who has not only covered songs made famous by Houston—Clarkson’s very career, launched a decade ago on American Idol, is the product of a big-voiced-diva culture Houston essentially codified.
Clarkson’s single steals the penthouse from “Set Fire to the Rain,” the latest hit by Adele. But the latter, no slouch in the big-voices department herself, held the top of the Billboard 200 album chart with 21 even before her six-award Grammy sweep last night. This is Adele’s 19th week atop the U.S. album list, which, in the 21 years that Soundscan data has governed the Billboard charts, is the second-longest run on top by any title. The album 21 still falls shy of, however, is the Whitney-led The Bodyguard soundtrack, which held the top of the chart for 20 weeks in 1992 and 1993, powered by Houston’s cover of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You.”
It’s good to be reminded of the late Houston’s relevance, especially after a decade she spent more as reality-show fodder than pop star. For most listeners, her appeal is encased in amber, carbon-dated to the Reagan-Bush era.
News of her passing over the weekend spawned a flood of nostalgia from pop and R&B fans of several generations, but it was mostly for songs from Houston’s 1985-95 peak. Three of Houston’s songs, all from that period, were in iTunes’ Top 10 in the first 24 hours after the news of her death: “I Will Always Love You,” unsurprisingly, was Apple’s best-seller on Sunday; 1987’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)” ranked seventh; and 1986’s “Greatest Love of All” ranked 10th.
You have to go down 48 places on iTunes’ list of Sunday best-sellers to find a Houston track released this century: the title track from her short-lived 2009 comeback album I Look to You, a single that couldn’t get higher on the Hot 100 than No. 70. Indeed, Houston hasn’t seen the inside of Billboard‘s Top 40 since 2001, when her 1991 recording of “The Star-Spangled Banner” briefly made the Top 10 in the wake of 9/11. Her last new recording to make the Top 40 was the 1999 single “I Learned from the Best,” which peaked at No. 27 way back in the winter of 2000.
Not even Michael Jackson, in the spotty final decade before his own untimely passing, ended his career this deep in the pop wilderness. How, then, should we regard Whitney as a chart force? What remains on her Billboard résumé that reflects her stature?
Many of Houston’s milestones revolve around the aforementioned Bodyguard soundtrack. It’s hard to overstate her dominance during the winter and spring of 1992-93, as the soundtrack sat stone atop the album chart for months, with only five weeks of interruption from December to May (Adele’s near-record-tying run has taken a lot longer). Almost simultaneously, the album’s positively ubiquitous lead single “I Will Always Love You” held the top of the Hot 100 for 14 uninterrupted weeks, then a record; we’ll talk about who eclipsed that record later.
The Bodyguard is destined to remain a record-book behemoth, even after it inevitably loses its title as longest-lasting No. 1 album of the Soundscan era in a couple of weeks to Adele. It’s still the best-selling soundtrack of all time, certified at 17-times-platinum in the U.S. alone; in an era when soundtrack albums struggle to even go gold, it’s a safe bet that nothing will threaten that sales marker anytime soon. Also secure is The Bodyguard‘s status as the first album in history to sell a million copies in a single week, during the Christmas season of 1992. Since then, another 16 albums have gone on to roll seven figures in seven days, a very select club.
Whitney Houston, “I Will Always Love You”
All of these stats are impressive, but they revolve around a disc Houston shared with more than a half-dozen other artists—not even half of The Bodyguard‘s tracks are hers—and the album’s feats were largely powered by one outsized hit song. To chart mavens, Houston’s standing in the record books was secured more definitively in her late-1980s heyday, with the two back-to-back self-titled albums that led off her career. They set a couple of records that stand to this day.
One is for most consecutive No. 1 singles on the Hot 100. Seven straight Houston singles rang the bell, spread across those two discs: “Saving All My Love for You,” “How Will I Know” and “Greatest Love of All” (from 1985’s Whitney Houston), followed directly by “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” “Didn’t We Almost Have it All,” “So Emotional” and “Where Do Broken Hearts Go” (from 1987’s title-challenged Whitney). With that seventh single in the spring of 1988, Houston outdid a pair of six-single runs by the Beatles in the ’60s and the Bee Gees in the ’70s. And no one has seriously threatened that record since—just last month, Katy Perry lost her chance to eventually tie Houston’s record when her sixth single from Teenage Dream, the aptly titled “One That Got Away,” peaked at No. 3, denying her a sixth consecutive No. 1.
The other record Houston set in the late ’80s can’t ever be taken away from her: the first woman to debut atop the Billboard album chart. The really impressive part is that she did this in the pre-Soundscan era, before the advent of accurate music-business tallying.
In the old days when Billboard compiled the charts by calling and faxing retailers manually, the system was generally too slow to capture a fast-breaking album, even by a superstar. Only five megastars, with six albums, managed to debut at No. 1 prior to 1991: Elton John’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy and Rock of the Westies (both 1975); Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life (1976); Bruce Springsteen’s Live 1975‒85 (1986); Houston’s Whitney, and Michael Jackson’s Bad (both 1987). After Billboard flipped to Soundscan in 1991 hundreds of albums debuted at No. 1, but Houston’s Whitney did it in an era when it was a truly rare feat. When she pulled it off in June 1987, she was 23, and on her second album, making her not just the first woman with a No. 1 debut but also the youngest and the newest.
Of course, setting chart records as a fresh-faced upstart is one thing, but we tend to look more favorably on longevity. As previously noted, Michael Jackson died with a much longer list of all-time chart feats that were set when he was as young as 11 and as old as 38. It’s harder to place Houston’s more concentrated legacy.
Obituary writers banging out encomiums to Houston over the weekend have been reeling off quite a list of artists considered her forbears and peers: her big-lunged godmother Aretha Franklin; her sophisticated songstress cousin Dionne Warwick; her ’80s centrist-pop contemporary Jackson; her melismatic successor Mariah Carey.
But if we’re really going to give Houston her due as a crossover-pop queen, her chart career deserves to be compared with another pop noble—one who died shockingly and prematurely, like her, in his forties: Elvis Presley.
Both Elvis and Whitney took a preexisting musical archetype—early rock n’ roll and gospel-infused R&B—and reinvented it with a mix of raw talent and commercial cunning. Both acts’ careers were the product of Svengali-like managers: Col. Tom Parker and Clive Davis. Both parlayed their pop stardom into playing versions of themselves in movies, resulting in timeless ballads that were artistic and/or commercial peaks for each: Elvis’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love” from 1961’s Blue Hawaii, and Houston’s aforementioned Bodyguard megasmash. (The former was only a No. 2 hit for Presley in 1961 but remains perhaps his most indelible and oft-covered hit.) For the purposes of this discussion, I’m not interested in their use of controlled substances, but obviously there are similarities there, as well.
Most important, both Elvis and Whitney saw their seemingly indomitable places in pop stolen by upstart successors who ultimately eclipsed their chart supremacy. Neither artist fully recovered his or her stature—and it could reasonably be argued that this loss of commercial edge was a blow personally to each of them.
Elvis’s competitor act showed up on the scene less than two years after his ’60s slump began. Following 1962’s “Good Luck Charm”—his last No. 1 hit for seven years—the Beatles arrived on the American charts and proceeded to lay waste to many of Elvis’s records. He never really caught up, even after scoring one last chart-topper in 1969 with “Suspicious Minds” before falling into his late-career, Vegas-era somnambulance. He died in 1977 with 17 chart-toppers to his name, three short of the Beatles. To this day, the world can be divided into Elvis people and Beatles people—but the King’s sales are routinely dwarfed by the Fab Four’s.
Whitney Houston, “Exhale (Shoop Shoop)”
Whitney was still near the top of her game when throne-challenger Mariah Carey, an artist groomed by Sony Music to emulate then-competing label Arista’s megasuccess with Houston, showed up in 1990. The two artists coexisted at rough parity for half a decade. Carey opened with a still-unbeaten streak of five career-launching No. 1 singles; Houston came back with her 1992-93 run of Bodyguard feats.
But by the middle of the decade, Carey’s ascendance was unmistakable and unstoppable. Her 1995 duet with Boyz II Men, “One Sweet Day,” spent 16 weeks at No. 1, eclipsing Houston’s 14-week record with “I Will Always Love You.” As if rubbing salt in the wound, the record-beating Carey-Boyz track took over the penthouse in late 1995 by evicting Houston’s single “Exhale (Shoop Shoop).” The latter spent a solitary week on top and turned out to be Houston’s last career No. 1 hit. After “Sweet,” Carey never looked back—she returned to the Hot 100’s top slot another eight times over the next 12 years, amassing a career total of 18 No. 1 hits, just shy of the Beatles’ total and nearly double that of Houston’s.
Just as it would be silly to suggest the Beatles single-handedly decimated Presley’s career, it would be unfair to portray Houston’s career downfall as somehow Carey’s doing. If there were ever enmity between the divas, it didn’t last—the two duetted on a 1998 single (“When You Believe”) and wound up, if not close friends, admiring peers. Carey was among the first celebrities to release a statement honoring Houston in the hours after her passing.
Rather, I compare Presley and Houston to, in a sense, properly regard them both—as singular figures for their respective times whose placement atop the pop firmament was as towering as it was, ultimately, unsustainable. After last night’s Grammys we’ve heard our share of heartfelt quips about whom Whitney is singing with in heaven right now (Etta James, Amy Winehouse). But if there is an afterlife, I’ll bet the conversation she’s having with Elvis is pretty fascinating.