The Prom Queen of Soul

Whitney Houston is sleek, sexy, successful -- and, surprise, she can sing

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Whitney Houston holds her award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance at the 30th Annual Grammy Awards March 2, 1987

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So what is this -- Whitney bread? The latest, most lavish confection of a no-risk music industry? Not quite. It's true that being gorgeous hasn't hurt her; those videos show a natural performer in the lightning radiance of youth. But if the camera loves her, so does the microphone. With that voice she could look like Danny DeVito and still be a star. It's true as well that she has been sold smartly and aggressively. But these salesmen had a Mercedes to peddle. As the singer says of herself, "They didn't have to make me over. There would be no 'Whitney Houston' without Whitney Houston." All of which raises the musical questions: Where did she come from? What did she overcome? For that we need a brief course in cultural history. This one:

In the beginning there was rock and roll. The infant art form embraced gospel and country, blues and ballads. Blacks cohabited with whites on the Top 40; boys packing sexual threat in their jeans shared the bill with girls tenderized in lacquer and lace. The mood could be tender too. On the radio, a slow tune just naturally followed an up-tempo number; it was the heartbeat of teen America. The 19-year-old Aretha Franklin could take a Broadway spiritual like Meredith Willson's Are You Sure and transform it into a righteous steeple raiser. Baby, that was rock and roll.

Auntie Ree emerged in the early '60s as part of an impressive sorority -- soul sisters from all over. Cousin Dionne, working within the ricochet rhythms of Burt Bacharach's songs, built a brand-new bridge connecting gospel urgency to show-tune sophistication. Barbra Streisand moonlighted from Broadway and never went back. The jazz inflections of Nina Simone and Sarah Vaughan enriched the vocabulary of pop. The megaton voices of Jackie DeShannon, Dusty Springfield and Timi Yuro lent powerful shadings to love songs. And the girl groups -- all the -elles and -ettes, the Supremes and Shangri-Las -- kept teen pulses surging to an irresistible beat. It made for a varied, vigorous music, in the golden age of chanteuse pop.

By the early '70s, though, a new agenda had been proclaimed. Melody and vocal craft were out, to be replaced by the hip virtues of energy and attitude. Male singer-songwriters were now the Rimbauds of rock and the women merely interpreters, trimming their expertise to the cut of the material. LaBelle or Bette Midler could coax a ballad to tears or go all raw in a rave- up, but that wasn't artistry, only dexterity without the signature of commitment. Meanwhile, FM radio's narrow-cast formats were herding black artists into the chic ghettos of Las Vegas and the R.-and-B. stations. By now the first generation of rock-'n'-roll kids had hit their 30s and wearied of a heavy-metal pep-pill diet. The music's emotional poverty had turned them into clones of their parents: people who hated rock because it was "just noise."

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