Whitney Houston's Voice Alone Would've Been Enough to Cement Her Legacy, but She Also Influenced a Legion of Pop Divas in Her Wake

Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Ariana Grande and many more were influenced by the late singer, who had one of the all-time great voices

By Natalie Finn Feb 11, 2017 3:00 PMTags
Whitney Houston, LegacyGetty Images; Shutterstock

Every year, a major artist sings the national anthem at the Super Bowl.

And every year, people heartily applaud and then start reminiscing about Whitney Houston—frankly, because no one will ever top her performance of the national anthem before Super Bowl XXV in 1991.

The Persian Gulf War had just started 10 days beforehand and the NFL had even considered postponing the game. Suffice it to say, tensions were high leading up to the event, even without social media as we know it contributing to the collective angst.

Houston was 27. She had yet to record what would become the biggest hit of her life, but still, the singer of mega-hits such as "I'm Your Baby Tonight," "Greatest Love of All" and "I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)" had made three platinum-selling albums and won two Grammys. 

Whitney Houston: Great Performances

She and the orchestra had prerecorded the track, as so many singers called upon to perform the song you cannot screw up in front of millions have done because the noise in the actual stadium makes it fairly impossible to hear cues.

NFL execs heard it, thought it was too slow and asked for a redo—but there wasn't time. And the rest is history.

Whitney Houston went out there on Jan. 27, 1991, and sang "The Star Spangled Banner," albeit into a dead microphone as the recorded track played, and the crowd was awestruck by what they heard coming out of the speakers. Houston's bluesy, soul-packed version became a top 20 single and was all over the radio, iTunes still being a decade away.

There would be controversy when an engineer admitted that the song was pre-recorded, as there would be 21 years later when a Beyoncé relied on a backup track for President Obama's second inauguration. 

But the overall effect Houston's rendition of the centuries-old song had on the country, when the world was on edge, was far more enduring than any does-it-matter-when-she-sang-it debate.

"If you were there you could feel the intensity," Houston would later recall. "...we needed hope, you know, to bring our babies home [from the war] and that's what it was about for me, that's what I felt when I sang that song, and the overwhelming love coming out of the stands was incredible." 

Indeed, the lip-sync police can't take away what was one of the most memorable (off-field) Super Bowl moments—no small feat, considering the size of the stage. And the pressure on those who've performed in her wake has only grown since that momentous year.

"I had a teleprompter with the lyrics right in front of me, but they were always a line behind," Kelly Clarkson, who sang the anthem at Super Bowl XLVI in 2012, reminisced to Rolling Stone in an interview about a month after Houston had died. "It was not fun. That's what I got for trying to cheat."

The loss still fresh, the magazine asked if she was a big Whitney fan, to which she replied, "Are you frickin' kidding me? I know every Whitney Houston song. I wanted to cover one of her songs at our shows as a tribute, but it's hard to cover her!"

She would shake off her trepidation eventually, doing "Queen of the Night" in concert; just a few months ago Clarkson tweeted that her next album, due sometime this year, was "#mariah meets #aretha meets #whitney meets #mefromidoldays meets #2017 meets #yallaintread."

But true story. Houston's ballads may be some of the most endlessly covered songs—surely half the people who ever tried out for American Idol had a little Whitney in their repertoire—but not just any proficient singer can do them justice.

Whitney Houston's Memorable Looks

Though Houston didn't write her own music, part of her magic touch during the best days of her career was that she sounded viscerally connected to every single song she sang—perhaps never so more than on "I Will Always Love You," which spent 14 weeks at No. 1 on the U.S. singles chart and anchored The Bodyguard's smash-hit soundtrack, the winner of the Album of the Year Grammy in 1994.

Jennifer Hudson, a disciple of the Whitney school of vocal power, got the call to sing "I Will Always Love You" at the 2012 Grammys. The show took place the day after Houston drowned in the bathtub in her room at the Beverly Hilton, hours before she was supposed to attend Clive Davis' annual pre-Grammys party.

"Whitney Houston was probably the ultimate artist that influenced me the most," Hudson had said on Nightline in 2008. "I always loved everything she sang. But Whitney, that voice, you know, and that music—I always like the music and the substance and something behind it and her music was just like that."


It was indeed more than her flawless voice that her fans and fellow singers worshiped, although hers remains one of the all-time great voices. As Hudson indicated, it was something about her very presence, the palpable strength she exhibited on stage, that also inspired countless artists. 

Houston had her contemporaries, such as Céline Dion with her powerhouse voice and Mariah Carey with her insane range. But even though their respective 1990 debut albums followed Houston's by only five years, Whitney's timeless quality made her seem like the forebear to one and all, aspiring and established. 

Carey, who recorded "When You Believe" from The Prince of Egypt with Houston and canceled a Good Morning America appearance while still reeling from the singer's sudden death, tweeted at the time, "Heartbroken and in tears over the shocking death of my friend, the incomparable Ms. Whitney Houston. My heartfelt condolences to Whitney's family and to all her millions of fans throughout the world. She will never be forgotten as one of the greatest voices to ever grace the earth."

Celebrity Collaborations

And while Houston's influence on the power-balladeers who followed in her wake was inescapable, there are certain artists in particular who have openly credited Whitney with inspiring their own journeys—and they're all over the pop spectrum.

"I, like every singer, always wanted to be just like her," Beyoncé stated after Houston died. "Her voice was perfect. Strong but soothing. Soulful and classic. Her vibrato, her cadence, her control. So many of my life's memories are attached to a Whitney Houston song. She is our queen and she opened doors and provided a blueprint for all of us."

Beyoncé has mastered an "I Will Always Love You" cover, which she would combine with "Halo" onstage in the wake of Whitney's passing. She most recently brought it out in a performance at a fundraiser for daughter Blue Ivy Carter's school last year, pretty much stealing all thunder ever from the rest of the PTA.

Lady Gaga, who followed in Houston's footsteps when impressed with her performance of the national anthem at the 2016 Super Bowl, thanked the iconic artist back in 2011 when Born This Way won the Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Album.

"I need to say thank you tonight to Whitney Houston," Gaga said. "I wanted to thank Whitney because when I wrote 'Born This Way,' I imagined she was singing it, because I wasn't secure enough in myself to imagine I was a superstar. So Whitney, I imagined you were singing 'Born This Way' when I wrote it. Thank you."

Brandy told E! News two days after Houston died that her Cinderella co-star had meant "everything" to her. "She's the reason that I sing." 

It's hard to believe Houston's been gone for five years already—and it's very easy to forget that her last No. 1 single was in 1995, the theme song from Waiting to Exhale

What would become Houston's final studio album, 2009's I Look to You, did debut at No. 1, proving that she was hardly forgotten in the later years of her career. But quiz most people now and they wouldn't be able to name more than a couple of songs on the album, while those same people could go on about a dozen songs recorded before 1995.

Brenda Chase/Getty Images

It's a testament to Houston's talent and ability to connect with anyone through her voice, as well as the team that hooked her up with exactly the right songs, that keep those 1980s and 1990s-era classics in rotation to this day, be it on Beyoncé or Kelly Clarkson's stage or at any karaoke bar on any given night.

The ongoing ubiquity of her music—also thanks in part to the variety of singing competitions on TV, which still frequently feature aspiring stars at least taking a stab at the late diva's impeccable vocal stylings—keeps her very present as the artists who came of age in her wake become the next generation's mentors.

Though her struggle with addiction and her messy marriage to Bobby Brown became the stuff of tabloid fodder, and her personal legacy took an even more tragic turn when her only child, Bobbi Kristina Brown, died at the age of 22 in 2015, there has been a concerted effort to keep Whitney's musical legacy pristine in honor of the lofty heights she reached in her prime.

Remembering Bobbi Kristina Brown One Year Later: Her Sweetest Moments With Mom Whitney Houston

Christina Aguilera, who had been covering Whitney since she was a teenager, taped a performance with a Whitney hologram that was going to air on The Voice last year, but the segment was canceled after producers and Houston's estate agreed that the technology wasn't doing her justice yet.

"Holograms are new technology that take time to perfect, and we believe with artists of this iconic caliber, it must be perfect," sister-in-law Pat Houston, an executor of Whitney's estate, told Entertainment Tonight at the time. "Whitney's legacy and her devoted fans deserve perfection. After closely viewing the performance, we decided the hologram was not ready to air."

Arguably the most direct descendant of the Whitney school among the current spate of It Girl pop stars is Ariana Grande, who has a voice that can knock a club tune out of the park and handle the biggest ballads.

As we know, she does an uncanny Whitney Houston impression—and when she covers the legend's songs live, she does so with reverence and utmost grace.

"Honored to be paying homage to my angel," Grande tweeted before performing a medley of Houston songs before ABC's Greatest Hits special last summer.

Of course, none of the tabloid headlines mattered once Houston was gone. Sadly, only then was it easy to refocus on her brilliant voice, her influence on so many artists and her singular contribution to the music history books. 

The artists who came up with Whitney Houston carry on in her stead, the ones who idolized her will never forget—and the new kids will learn. No one ever did it quite like Whitney and no one ever will, but many more will try.