University of Rochester

Rock, Pop Historian John Covach on the Death of Whitney Houston

February 13, 2012

University of Rochester Music Historian John Covach describes Whitney Houston as "a trailblazer and a song stylist, much in the tradition of Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley or her cousin, Dionne Warwick." Covach, a professor of music and chair of the Department of Music at the University of Rochester and professor of music theory at the Eastman School of Music, is the author of What's That Sound? An Introduction to Rock and its History (Norton, 2006) and the co-editor of Sounding Out Pop (University of Michigan Press, 2011). He reacted to Houston's sudden death on Feb. 11 with this assessment:

"In these days after the tragic death of singer Whitney Houston, authorities cannot be certain of the precise cause of her death at the age of 48. Some suspect drugs played a role, since the singer had a history of addiction. But her death in a Hollywood hotel bathtub just hours before a Grammy party hosted by her mentor, Clive Davis, could also have been an accident. We can, however, be relatively confident of what did not kill Whitney Houston. It wasn't music that killed her, or singing, or acting, or performing. In all likelihood, it was celebrity that killed the popular singer.

"Few artists survive the level of celebrity Whitney achieved without being damaged, and singers seem the most prone to emotional injury in this regard. Houston's story is similar to those of Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson, both of whom died young and some years into the downslide from their respective career peaks. It is also true that many others, such as Paul McCartney or Mick Jagger, continue to survive such superstardom, or at least are able to manage it.

"As shocking as such tragic deaths can be for fans and admirers, however, much of the gossip and scandal of current reports will be forgotten within a few years and Whitney Houston will be remembered for her accomplishments as a singer and actor. As a singer, few have dominated the charts as Whitney did in her prime, and her virtuosic approach to singing has had a significant impact on the development of popular-music history. Houston's exceptional vocal prowess took control of every song she sang. It almost didn't matter what the song was; once she began to sing, the focus of the performance was the singing itself. Like musical virtuosi throughout history—Niccolo Paganini, Franz Liszt, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane—there was a sense of wonder at what she could do, an expressive and technical command that astounded as it delighted.

"For all that's been said about Whitney Houston as a trailblazer, her career was in many ways very old school. She was not a singer-songwriter, writing songs that reflected her own thoughts and experiences as so many rock singers have done since Bob Dylan and The Beatles. Whitney was a song stylist, and this is very much in the tradition of Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley or her cousin, Dionne Warwick. Song stylists depend on others to write the songs and the arrangements; a song stylist's job is to put his or her own personal stamp on a song. Back in the first half of the 20th century, many different singers would record the same hit song; the way to get fans to buy your version was to make the song distinctively yours. Song stylists had a trademark approach to performing and they depended on that to make their mark; nobody, however, expected them to be songwriters, producers, or arrangers. When Whitney sang a song, there was no doubt who was singing.

"Whitney was able to diversify her career by making films, beginning with The Bodyguard. Again, this is a tried-and-true approach to help insure a singer has a career after her first wave of success has subsided. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Elvis Presley, Barbra Streisand, and Diana Ross all moved into films later in their careers. Among her 1980s colleagues on the pop charts, Prince and Madonna both turned to films before Whitney. But Whitney's films were blockbusters, and the songs that went with the movie soundtracks were chart-topping hits. All of this combined to make Whitney Houston one of the biggest stars in the world—a celebrity recognized wherever she went.

"Whitney Houston's music and success are what she will be remembered for, but the overwhelming intensity of that success is probably what painted her into the celebrity corner that led to her demise. In the years following his death, nobody really thought much about the "fat Elvis"; it wasn't long before our memories of Elvis were of the dangerous young man swiveling his hips on national TV. And only a year after Michael Jackson's death, nobody much cared about the scandals and spectacles of his last years. He would forever be the fantastic performer of his "Billie Jean" video. Likewise with Whitney Houston: after all the hubbub surrounding her death has passed and the reporters have moved on to the next celebrity scandal, we will still marvel at that fantastic voice, and the phenomenal performances that made her one of the greatest singers in the history of popular music."