Whitney Houston, dead tonight at 48, is already being eulogized as a tragic diva. We should remember her instead as an athlete. At her peak, in the 1980s and early-’90s, Houston was as formidable a physical force as American popular music has produced. She was an outrageously talented singer. She had a bright, bold, rippling voice, full of pop sheen and gospel flavor. It was dexterous: Houston leaped across octaves, at full sprint, with the grace of an Olympic hurdler. And it was very, very loud: When a Whitney song came on your car stereo, you could have sworn someone had jacked up the master volume at the radio station.
She could sing pop songs: “How Will I Know” and “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” belong on the celestial mixtape of the greatest 1980s bubblegum. But she was at her best, was most unmistakably Whitney, in the easy listening ballads that she took to a place that could no longer be called easy—rising to peaks of volume and intensity, and then going further. There was always another crescendo lurking, ready to blow your ears off, somewhere on the other side of the second chorus.
Houston was the queen of Adult Contemporary—but her adultness made her not quite contemporary. She was old-fashioned, a little bit fuddy-duddy; your grandmother loved her. She sang about grown-up emotions, and had no feel for the attitude, or the rhythms, of hip-hop. She spent the early ‘90s in a tug-of-war with Mariah Carey for chart supremacy, but Carey’s hip-hop savvy ensured that she’d come out on top in the end—even though Whitney could sing circles around her.
She captured the zeitgeist in other ways, though. Her message was self-esteem: She made opera out of Oprah. A historian wishing to understand America’s late-20th-century therapy culture can begin and end his research with Whitney Houston: “Learning to love yourself / Is the greatest love of all.”
The self-esteem was inseparable from self-regard—she was a diva, after all. But she was not just singing for herself. She was criticized for being too milquetoast, too “white,” but you could hear the black church in every note of her records. There was a reason that African-American women were her most loyal fans: When she unleashed her fearsome melisma, singing about struggle and resiliency, demanding love and fair treatment in the face of indifference, only a dolt could miss the politics. You can hear it in the stormy final chorus of one of her greatest ballads, “I Have Nothing.” “Don’t walk away from me!” she commands in a wild gospel growl. It’s a sound that will outlive her, and the rest of us.