Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? On our new show, 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s, Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla embarks on a quest to answer those questions, one track at a time. Follow and listen for free exclusively on Spotify. Below is an excerpt from Episode 29, which explores Whitney Houston’s talent and legacy with help from author Gerrick Kennedy.
“How Will I Know.” Whitney Houston’s second no. 1 single on the Billboard Hot 100. Out of 11 no. 1 singles, total. This is one of three no. 1s from her debut album alone. The ballads “Saving All My Love for You” and “The Greatest Love of All” are the others, of course. She called that album Whitney Houston. It came out on Valentine’s Day 1985. This is pure, uncut, Best-Case Scenario 1985, to me. This is looking at the past through rose-colored glasses personified. This is the giant bow in Whitney’s hair in the “How Will I Know” video. This is Peak 1985, right up there with Queen at Live Aid, or The Goonies, or the New York City–area test-market release of the original eight-bit Nintendo Entertainment System, or the Topps Roger Clemens rookie card, or the way as a society we all set aside our differences and joined hands as a nation to drag New Coke. Almost had it all, didn’t we?
Whitney Houston was 21 years old when her debut album came out. She was born in Newark, New Jersey. Her mother, Cissy Houston, was a famous Gospel singer who sang backup for Elvis Presley and Aretha Franklin. Whitney’s cousin was Dionne Warwick, a super-famous Gospel and pop singer who would one day be the only tolerable person left on Twitter. In 1985 we didn’t need Twitter. All we needed was Whitney Houston singing the word Hoo.
There is instrumental accompaniment in the original chart-topping version of “How Will I Know.” Peppy keyboards and electric guitar and a Day-Glo saxophone solo and whatnot. That version is fine. The music is lovely. Shout-out music. Shout-out Arista Records president and music-biz Master of the Universe Clive Davis, who quote-unquote discovered Whitney Houston in a New York City nightclub. Sure ya did. But really all you ever need is Whitney Houston’s voice, right? The rest is noise. The rest, by comparison, is noise pollution. The less distraction, the better. The less context, the better. What if we just enjoyed this voice, to the exclusion of all else? What if we just luxuriated in this voice? What if we transported ourselves back to the era when this woman had the most powerful voice in America, and tried not to think too hard about how that era ended?
But we know how this ends. Let’s get this over with. Whitney Houston was found dead in a hotel bathtub in Beverly Hills on February 11, 2012. She was 48. Her daughter, Bobbi Kristina Brown, died in 2015. She was 22. Now forget I told you that. I don’t want to talk about how this ends. We can respect the ending but also free Whitney Houston’s music—so much of which was buoyant, and triumphant, and revolutionary—from the psychic weight of how this all ends. The tendency—if, for example, you’re the director of a grim and heartbreaking and slightly tawdry Whitney Houston documentary, of which there are a few—is to only use the infectious chart-smashing ecstasy of her music to underscore the plain fact that Whitney Houston the human being is an American Tragedy. A song as perfect and ebullient as “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” is only valuable now, to a prestige-adjacent filmmaker, as ominous foreshadowing. But what if we set all that pathos aside and just … danced? Or at least listened to Whitney, and only to Whitney, as she sang about wanting to dance. “I Want to Dance With Somebody” parentheses “Who Loves Me.” That parentheses are important. That parentheses gives the song depth, and yes, OK, maybe even an undertone of sadness. But it doesn’t retroactively cheapen the song. It doesn’t try to turn the song into a Fake Bullshit Downer Ending. Don’t even try that shit with this song. I really wish everybody would stop trying.
So as you can see I so desperately want to talk about Whitney Houston, but I am so desperate to avoid talking about, say, the last 30 percent of her life. You either know too much about all that or you don’t need to know very much at all. I will talk about literally anything else. I will rant about The Bodyguard at great length. What else can we—the way Whitney Houston laughs during the bridge to “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.” Can we talk about that?
This is a person who is blissfully, radiantly alive. Let this person live. Let this person live on. Find other stuff to talk about. For example: Put Whitney Houston in the Pop-Star Laugh Hall of Fame. Let’s build the Pop-Star Laugh Hall of Fame and put Whitney Houston in it. And then let’s give her company. Put Whitney right next to Janet Jackson at the end of “When I Think of You.”
Janet Jackson passed on the song “How Will I Know,” actually. Whitney got it instead. Janet Jackson, singing “How Will I Know,” on Control—just imagining that is a fun way to spend an afternoon. Control came out in 1986, the year after the first Whitney Houston record. The year after that, 1987, we get Whitney’s second album. She calls this one just Whitney. Four straight no. 1 singles off this record, starting with “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.” You know what I wanna talk about, really? Key changes. Whitney Houston is the Mozart, the Picasso, the Frida, the Aretha, the Alpha and Omega of key changes. It’s like you’ve been shot out of a cannon, directly into another cannon, and then you get shot out of that one.
To hear the full episode click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Wednesday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.