Whitney houston‘s “I will always love you” – a cover of a Dolly parton 1974 single – was released on November 3, 1992. It debuted at No. 40 on Billboard Hot 100 and took two weeks to reach number 1, where it remained for 14 weeks, a record at the time. As we all remember, this comes from The bodyguard soundtrack, a messy sales powerhouse that topped off six Whitney tracks (including her cover “I’m Every Woman” and gospel number “Jesus Loves Me”), then quickly crept into Kenny g territory. What we may not remember is that the soundtrack sold 17 million copies and broke SoundScan’s record for sales in a single week. Twice. (First he broke the mark owned by Guns N ‘Roses’ Use your illusion II; seven days later, it became the first album to sell over a million in a week.) Oh, and The bodyguard won a Grammy for Album of the Year and “I Will Always Love You” won the Record of the Year as well as Best Female Pop Voice.
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“I Will Always Love You” is Whitney’s greatest moment and one of the greatest moments in American pop. It was bravery, sentimental, and prone, like many of his recordings, to bland studio touches that sound frustratingly (in this case, a saxophone solo you’d rarely hear outside of a dentist’s office) . Yet it was also monumental, unmistakable and, like many of his recordings, a triumph of vocal ability that comes across as an indomitable human. The hyphenation just before the drumbeat, and it flies away for that impossible note? It’s a moon stroke, and we have to be strapped to the rocket and go around with it. And that she laces everything so far with a tangle of vulnerability and joy makes it even more amazing, like she’s painting five or six different paintings before she makes up her mind, damn it, let’s go Technicolor! 3D !! We will need a bigger theater !!!
Yet, 17 million copies or not, 1992 will not be remembered as the year of Whitney Houston. We remember as the days of Nirvana and Dr. Dre‘s The Chronicle. Part of the reason could be that The bodyguard The soundtrack was his last album – if you think of it as a Whitney album – in six years. (She got married Bobby brown in July 1992; their daughter was born the following March.) But a bigger reason is that Nirvana and Dre’s menacing anomie fits the narrative much better than Whitney wishing us joy and love. It was the year of the LA riots, after all. The music of alienation and instability seemed to capture a moment when everything was split. And while it’s now clear that Nirvana and Dre’s music attracted a mass pop audience – indeed, each other’s audiences – then the myth that this music was intended for separate audiences was hard to shake. .
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It is also a myth that “I Will Always Love You” targets and erases. Even if you never knew it was a country cover, it still intersects genres and audiences, and overturns the idea that black and white music (and audiences) don’t speak to each other directly. Whitney had planned to cover Jimmy ruffinMotown’s 1966 hit, “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted,” until she heard it was used on the Grilled green tomatoes soundtrack. It was Bodyguard co-featured Kevin costner who brought in Linda ronstadtThe version of “I will always love you”. The doomed romance of the lyrics and how hard it is to find good wishes in the sadness fits much better with the movie’s Romeo and Juliet interracial love story. Whitney took over Ronstadt’s arrangement – Parton’s original is actually much closer to a classic soul ballad – and its note of power at the end. But her voice takes Parton’s lonely pain as a starting point and unleashes itself from there, passing through opera technique, blue yodeling and gospel before culminating in sheer Elvis-in-Vegas glory. . It’s almost like a historic tour of American singing – or America itself.
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As with so much pop music, it is an enactment of American potential, the expression of an ideal of unity that is usually nothing more than that: an ideal. Except the time it takes to listen to one song or dance to another. It is then an ideal in action. It’s not for nothing that the other song was constantly mentioned in the hours following Whitney’s passing from her 1991 Super Bowl recording of “The Star-Spangled Banner”, an African-American recovery of the song. national anthem less daring than Jimi Hendrix‘s where Marvin Gaye‘s but no less powerful.
One last thought: it is striking how many songs Whitney has, like “I Will Always Love You”, songs of heartbreak. I mentioned this to someone in passing and was immediately corrected – what about uptempo pop hits? What about “I want to dance with someone (who loves me)”? Or “How will I know”? But even these are love searches – she’s not really dancing with someone who loves her at this point; she’s not with someone she knows to be that one. Of course, this is not how these songs are presented. What is remembered is not that the singer has an affair with a married man in “Saving All My Love for You”. What we remember is having sex all night long.
It is worth remembering now: how Whitney was able to turn every word, every song, into an expression of jubilation. It’s a touch of a gospel singer, and it’s the one she left us.
Joe Levy is a seasoned music writer, magazine editor and television commentator.