I noticed what must have been a typo in a New York Times article about Whitney Houston following news of her death on Sunday. It mentioned Mariah Carey as one of Houston’s “few equals”.
Another news site reported that people, when hearing Carey for the first time, often mistook her voice for Houston’s as they sounded so similar.
Without trudging that well-worn path of comparing two female singers to proclaim my verdict as to which had the better voice, let me briefly describe what I always heard as the fundamental and immediately audible difference between the two. A difference you could feel as well as hear.
When Carey sings, I hear (and see) effort. When Houston sang, I heard effortlessness.
Carey and many other singers since display a whole lot of talent, sure — but also a whole lot of effort. The exertion is seen as well as heard — watching them sing, it looks like they’re in pain.
They reach amazing notes, yes, and perhaps squeeze more notes and trills into each syllable than Houston chose to, but all the effort sounds, looks and feels like pain.
Houston didn’t need to try to get there — she was already there, and smiling. She was in complete command of her voice as it hit each note with the full force of hurricane-strength winds and it was the very sound of effortlessness.
When Houston hit those big notes (see the endurance test that is Didn’t We Almost Have It All, the triumphant Greatest Love of All, and the final note coming into the last choruses of I Wanna Dance With Somebody), she sounded like she was fully and freely occupying that space where there was no pain. Her flag flew greatest when unfurled at full mast.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, that voice symbolised the feeling (however illusory) of limitlessness and triumph — particularly in her Star-Spangled Banner (because it is hers!) and One Moment In Time. On the latter, just when you think she’s hit her limit on the line “If you seize that one moment in time”, she soars beyond it with the next line, “Make it shine”.
In her prime, she could scale vocal mountains, seemingly effortlessly, and not look exhausted. Indeed, she looked and sounded strongest and happiest in those moments when mere mortal voices would have broken and choked.
With Houston, the big notes were not a display of effort. They were effortless. The big choruses were not a battle. They were the victory (see I Will Always Love You).
And aside from an all-powerful chest voice, Houston had one other secret weapon. She could fly out, at the end of a huge chorus, high on a bird-like trill in her crystal-clear head-voice (again, see I Will Always Love You or Saving All My Love For You).
At the upper end of such a powerful chest-voice came the pure heights of that head-voice which managed to sound simultaneously impossible and inevitable. It left the listener with both the question and the answer of how the combination of vocal cords and breath could conspire to produce such a sound.
It defied belief but at the same time, it also made perfect sense — of course she could sound so good, and so effortless. She was Whitney Houston.
By BRETT EVERY.
Brett Every is a Sydney singer-songwriter who will appear as part of the Sidetrack Theatre’s blackcat lounge season of queer cabaret, opening tonight.