My family got cable TV in the fall of 1995. As a second grader, my initial reaction of complete and utter joy had pretty much everything to do with the promise of not having to watch episodes of Doug and Clarissa Explains It All at my friends’ houses any longer, but it was only a week or two until I made my way a bit further north than usual on our channel list and eventually ended up setting up camp at VH1 and Mtv for the rest of my discernible childhood.
November 1995 was a wonderful time for a boy that would go on to love divas for the rest of his life. Aside from the occasional Collective Soul or Blues Traveler video, nearly every entry on Vh1’s Top 10 Countdown was something like TLC morphing into dancing CGI blobs of water or Janet Jackson hopping around the Sydney Opera House. But as the pop hierarchy went at the time, the top two spots belonged to Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy” and Whitney Houston’s “Exhale (Shoop Shoop).” There was a much publicized public rivalry going on between the two in the media at the time (whether real or not), but looking back on the that time in my life, I didn’t care. Before then, I was someone who subsided solely on soundtrack albums from Animaniacs. Whitney and Mariah introduced me to music, and while my tastes may now have evolved past a diet built solely on vocal runs (although, let’s not kid ourselves, that’s still the main entrée), the two will always have a special place in my heart for doing so.
Whitney’s voice will always be remembered as one of the most gorgeous in the history of music, and while it was often bogged down by some of the schlockier elements of the 80s and 90s, it was a talent so pristine and effortless that half the time the material didn’t even matter. Here are 5 of my personal favorites.
Laid-back and breezy weren’t adjectives often thrown at Whitney, but the title track to her 1998 album proved that she was able to pull off a mid-tempo sing-along with the utmost of ease, thanks in part to some masterful phrasing and some delicate and thoughtful lyrics courtesy of Wyclef Jean. If the way Whitney sings “I feel like I wanna go home” didn’t send a shiver down your spine before…
In the late 90s, R&B was heading in a much busier and intricately produced direction and critics were interested in seeing how Whitney would cope while competing in a landscape that was becoming more and more modern by the day. Half a year before TLC and Destiny Child whipped out their man-hating minor-key masterpieces (“No Scrubs” and “Bills, Bills, Bills” respectively), Whitney set the bar high with “It’s Not Right, But It’s Okay,” a song whose sassy lyrics (extra points for the third person reference. Whitney earned it) and creepy production (the more popular club remix criminally removes the chilling opening xylophones) ended up having a major influence on contemporary female R&B for years to come.
Whitney never got as much respect as she deserved for being a dance floor diva, and while a lot of that probably has to do with the fact that she could never dance herself (seriously, I don’t think she moves more than 2 steps to the left or right in any video after 1993), songs like “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” the long-forgotten “Love is a Contact Sport,” and this wonderfully kicky slice of 80’s pop, remain as some of the most enduringly feel-good songs of the last three decades. “How Will I Know” owes a lot to the Pointer Sisters, but it’s also what helped her crossover to the pop charts early on in her career, no doubt in part thanks to a delightfully bizarre music video and a melody so strong that it’s practically all chorus.
Whitney’s will forever be known for the more bombastic moments of her musical career (if you got the chops to pull of that “I Will Always Love You” note, you go for it), but “Exhale” is the shining jewel of Whitney’s pop career for just how expertly it displays the singer’s astounding amount of vocal control and pitch-perfect clarity. Whitney avoids the showy notes and instead rides Babyface’s lush production right into a state of sublime elegance and gives a song about finding the courage to move on the mature air of a woman who’d already seen it all before.
Pop may have been the more profitable route, but Whitney’s roots were in the church and she never sounded better than she did on the gospel numbers from her 1996 film “The Preacher’s Wife.” Backed by the Georgia Mass Choir, Whitney’s voice is an absolute knockout here and is likely the single most sincere and soulful performance of her lifetime. There’s a reason I put this song on in the middle of the night after being scared to death by The Sixth Sense back in the sixth grade. If they play this at her funeral, I can’t imagine anyone having a dry eye come the 2:23 mark.