Whitney Houston: Her Life Played Out Like An Opera

Whitney Houston performs in 1988.

Part I

Part II

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GUY RAZ, HOST: And finally tonight, the impact of Whitney Houston on pop history cannot be overstated. She died, of course, yesterday at the age of 48.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GREATEST LOVE OF ALL")

WHITNEY HOUSTON: (Singing) No matter what they take from me, they can't take away my because the greatest love of all is happening to me.

RAZ: NPR's pop music critic, Ann Powers, is with me now for a look back on Houston's career through some of her songs. And, Ann, I want to start with the song "How Will I Know" which was from her debut album in 1985.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW WILL I KNOW")

HOUSTON: (Singing) How will I know if he really loves me? I say a prayer with every heartbeat.

RAZ: This was the way many people were introduced to Whitney Houston, the pop princess, the kind of Goody Two-shoes, it was - and it was a number one hit.

ANN POWERS, BYLINE: Absolutely, Guy. Whitney Houston was a artist. She was connected to R&B royalty, but she appealed to a pop . Her mother, Cissy Houston, is a well-known gospel and pop singer. Her cousin is Dionne Warwick, and of course, her godmother is Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul.

RAZ: When the song came out, Whitney Houston was also criticized by some in the music industry for not, you know, not being R&B enough, for being too pop-y, right?

POWERS: Right, exactly. I mean, if you look at the history of American pop music, for much of it, R&B and rock or pop were very divided, and here was Whitney Houston who basically was marketed to everyone. And that was hard for some purists to take, but I think it was actually a very valuable moment in pop.

RAZ: Probably the high point of her career came in 1992. She was in the film "The Bodyguard" with Kevin Costner. I don't know if that film was the high point, but a song from that film, "I Will Always Love You."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WILL ALWAYS LOVE YOU")

HOUSTON: (Singing) And I will always love you, I will always...

RAZ: That's unmistakable. And that song, of course, went on to win Grammys and really showcased her range. I mean, it's a three-octave range.

POWERS: Absolutely. And of course, written by another amazing woman in pop history Dolly Parton, another example of how Whitney Houston not only crossed boundaries but really them. Her talent is the kind of talent that is just impossible to hold in a box, and I think that was also why, you know, her eventual decline was so tragic to so many people.

RAZ: In some ways, her decline was almost . I mean, she was this beloved, kind of sunny and bright personality, and then all of a sudden she kind of emerged very troubled.

POWERS: Yeah. It's a tragedy. When I wrote about it for NPR Music, I talked about it as if it could be the plot of an opera. It's just such an arch. When she started to decline, a lot of people blamed drugs, some people pointed to her very troubled marriage to the R&B singer Bobby Brown. I'm sure the story will all come out eventually.

At this time, I feel like I want to honor her talent and not dwell too much on that. But, yes, it is a sad tale about the price of fame and how hard it is to be a celebrity in America.

RAZ: Ann Powers is the chief music critic for npr.org. Ann, thanks so much.

POWERS: Thank you so much, Guy.

RAZ: And you can visit nprmusic.org for more about the life and career of Whitney Houston. She died yesterday at the age of 48.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I BELIEVE IN YOU AND ME")

HOUSTON: (Singing) And I believe in dream again. I believe that love will never end. And like the river finds the sea, I was lost. Now I'm free because I believe in you and me. I'll never leave your side...

RAZ: And for Saturday, that's Sunday, rather, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Check out our weekly podcast, the Best of WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. You can find it at iTunes or npr.org/weekendatc. We're back on the radio next weekend with more news, features, books and music. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great week.

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