Nov 11

WHITNEY HOUSTON – “I Will Always Love You”

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#684, 5th December 1992

If there’s a single technique which – however unfairly – defines 90s and 00s soul music for the British public, it’s melisma, and if there’s a single record that cemented that link, it’s “I Will Always Love You”, at number one for a whole winter, by the end of which it was fixed as either one of pop’s all-time great love songs or one of its most reviled dirges.

Certainly it took me a very long time to scrape away that reflexive distaste and try and listen to the record fresh. There’s no denying that Whitney Houston uses the song as a vocal gymnasium, but the repertoire she shows off isn’t just note-bending and belting. She goes hushed too, clips syllables when she needs to, and lets words drain out into sadness as often as she sets them spinning. As a rule she sustains the “I”s – an unwavering blast of strength – and goes to polysyllabic bits at the end of each “you”, which seems fair enough since the you is the lover she can’t hold onto and must walk away from. Like most songs damned as melismatic showboating there’s plenty of thought involved: technique is hardly ever ‘just’ technique.

Certainly this isn’t an especially naturalistic reading. It became fashionable back then to praise the Dolly Parton originals as being subtler and more moving than Whitney’s Olympian approach. Maybe they are: they’re great records, easy to listen to and more conversational than Whitney’s cover. Dolly sings the song’s terrific, heartbreaking opening couplet – “If I should stay / I would only be in your way” – with matter-of-fact sadness: it bounds the song, establishing the singer’s love as doomed. Whitney – famously taking the verse a capella – breaks the line into five distinct phrases, broken puzzle pieces she’s refusing to fit back together because doing so would mean giving up. Dolly’s version is a tragedy – her love is also her cross to bear; Whitney’s is an elemental struggle, each bludgeoning crescendo a deliberate raising of the stakes.

It’s no fault of her performance that the arrangement can’t do it justice. After the initial coup of the naked verse the music tracks her in the most blundering way possible – bashing and flailing where she’s steely and graceful. Houston’s vocals don’t need the key changes and the stomping drums and they certainly don’t need that sax solo, but for all her strength she’s helpless against a greater force: this is a blockbuster soundtrack single and that’s what such things sound like. It means – despite Whitney’s flawless precision – I still find this single more bullying than beautiful.



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  1. 151
    Ed on 24 Feb 2012 #

    Ahem… ‘This Land is *Your* Land’, which makes the democratic point rather better. Intended to be the anti-‘God Bless America’, says YouTube, and who am I to argue?

    And while I’m fact-checking, ‘Whokill’ is the Tune-Yards album. ‘My Country’, of course, is the song.

  2. 152
    swanstep on 24 Feb 2012 #

    The US also has ‘America The Beautiful’ (the amber waves of grain, sea to shining sea one) and ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’ (the mine eyes have seen the glory, where the grapes of wrath are stored one).
    Whitney singing America the B.
    Whitney singing the Battle Hymn

  3. 153
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 24 Feb 2012 #

    “Battle Hymn of the Republic” was originally a Unionist song written by a committed abolitionist, Juliet Ward Howe (not to be confused with Harriet Beecher Stowe!), to the tune of “John Brown’s Body”: interesting if it’s uncomplicatedly become an all-American hymn, especially in the Old South, where John Brown is to this day not well thought of.

    (I’m not saying it hasn’t: I remember singing it in assembly at all three schools I was at, age 5-17: all three English as English as English)

  4. 154
    Ed on 24 Feb 2012 #

    @152 Thanks for those links.

    “Written by a committed abolitionist” means that an African-American woman singing the Battle Hymn, to a military audience, in Virginia, has a particular edge to it.

  5. 155
    wichita lineman on 24 Feb 2012 #

    Re 146: the Mail or Express had the headline “At Last singer Etta James is dead”, which is possibly worse than “the voice of diet coke”.

  6. 156
    Ed on 27 Feb 2012 #

    The courageous stab at ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ at this year’s NBA All-Stars game by Mary J Blige, herself a pretty great singer, really puts Houston’s achievement into perspective:


  7. 157
    swanstep on 27 Feb 2012 #

    @ed, 156. Just in case you or anyone else hasn’t seen/heard it, Marvin Gaye’s 1983 NBA all-star game national anthem (w/ drum machine) is truly a thing of wonder. He transforms the melody and the timing in unexpected ways that nonetheless feel completely inevitable and obvious as he sings. Genius. Flat out.

  8. 158
    Ed on 3 Mar 2012 #

    @157 Wow. Just wow. Thanks for posting that: I hadn’t heard it. As you say, flat-out genius, from the bold decision to chop off the first two words onwards. Impossibly subtle and irresistibly moving.

    I love the backing track, too. You keep half-expecting the next line to be “By the rockets’ red glare, I’ve got sexual healing….”

    It doesn’t hurt that he looks super-cool in that suit and shades, too.

  9. 159
    Ed on 4 Mar 2012 #

    Watching the Gaye again, I was reminded of another stand-out feature of that performance: the impassioned emphasis he gives to the word “free” in the penultimate line. You could write a book about that “free”.

  10. 160
    Paul Ramsey on 17 Mar 2012 #

    Obviously with her recent tragic demise we have had a chance to listen again and re-evaluate Whitney. When you go back and listen to the bodyguard this is not even the stand out performance; try I who have nothing or run to you; but apart from her supersonic voice what was her importance; well as someone who has always loved soul and r&b I was always annoyed that the earlier pioneers fats domino, chuck berry, Sam Cooke Solomon Burke etc., never got their proper commercial acceptance and were subject to inferior covers and so it continued with Donne Warwick and then the Jackson 5; however in the 1980s Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston set about rewriting the record books and becoming commercial juggernauts. They claimed huge success for black music and dismantled rock and pop’s domination of charts, awards and records. Paving the world for today’s situation where r&b dominates; all my long haired bearded hippy friends from years ago with their prog rock snobbery towards black music now realise that the world rocks to one beat; thanks Whitney rip.

  11. 161
    seo on 19 Aug 2012 #

    I was wondering if you ever thought of changing the page
    layout of your blog? Its very well written; I love what youve got to say.
    But maybe you could a little more in the way of content so people could
    connect with it better. Youve got an awful lot of text for only having 1 or 2 pictures.
    Maybe you could space it out better?

  12. 162
    Auntie Beryl on 9 Jan 2013 #


    “That list of “Rock stars that completed their artistic endeavours and retired happy” so far consists of David Bowie, and that’s it!”

    Never say never again…

  13. 163
    mapman132 on 11 Sep 2014 #

    Chart trivia fact: This recording has the highest combined run atop the US/UK charts: 14 (US) + 10 (UK) = 24 weeks. EIDIDIFY is in second place with 23 weeks. Now that I think about it, IWALY should probably be added to my self-defined 90’s Big Three of EIDIDIFY, CITW97, and MHWGO to make a 90’s Big Four of ballads that were huge megahits almost everywhere.

    Also, IWALY returned to #3 on the Hot 100 in the wake of Whitney’s death, the second-best peak ever for a former #1.

    All that being said, I prefer Dolly’s version of IWALY myself.

  14. 164
    hectorthebat on 6 Apr 2015 #

    Critic watch:

    RIAA and NEA (USA) – 365 Songs of the Century (2001) 108
    Rolling Stone & MTV (USA) – The 100 Greatest Pop Songs Since the Beatles (2000) 40
    Soul Bounce (USA) – The Top 100 Soul/R&B Songs (2008) 97
    Steve Sullivan (USA) – Encyclopedia of Great Popular Song Recordings (2013) 201-300
    VH1 (USA) – The 100 Greatest Songs from the Past 25 Years (2003) 8
    HarperCollins GEM (UK) – Single of the Year 1949-99 (1999)
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)
    Grammy Awards (USA) – Record of the Year Winner

  15. 165
    Gareth Parker on 1 May 2021 #

    Whitney’s a good singer in my opinion, but this just becomes all a bit OTT for me at times. 3/10.

  16. 166
    Stephen Emmett on 21 Jan 2022 #

    For all the right reasons, I honestly hate this version with every bit of my heart. If it were the original (or 1982 rerecording) version by Dolly Parton, I’d give it a fair 7, but not here.

    To be fair, I still think that it’s too bombastic and overproduced. This one’s just bad enough for me to give a sarcastic 10 (doing it out of my mother’s sake), but truthfully, this is the worst of Whitney’s three UK number one singles. In this case, I’d give it a truthful…

    1 (sorry for those who love this version)

    (Postscript: I was being too harsh here. So I’ll settle in the middle and give it a 4, one mark shy of Tom’s.)

  17. 167
    Stephen Emmett on 21 Jan 2022 #

    #166 (Postscript 2: Sorry, four.)

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