LOS ANGELES — When Whitney Houston was found lifeless in her Beverly Hills hotel room Saturday, music fans heard more than a few echoes of another 1980s pop superstar who died suddenly less than three years ago.
Like Michael Jackson, Houston was a global recording force who parlayed R&B music into slick, chart-topping hits that defined an era, only to be brought low by a cascade of personal woes, which, in Houston’s case, included admitted drug abuse, a deeply troubled marriage and financial travails.
And like Jackson, Houston, who was 48, has seen a huge posthumous spike in sales. Sunday’s Grammys, which, amid the coronation of the retro torch singer Adele featured recurrent heartfelt tributes to Houston, including Jennifer Hudson’s rendition of her biggest hit, “I Will Always Love You,” delivered the show’s second-highest ratings of all time. The show attracted nearly 40 million viewers, according to Nielsen, an impressive mark that stands behind only the 1984 Grammys when Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” helped draw an audience of more than 51 million.
Yet while the postmortem celebration and curiosity may be inevitable, the larger question remains whether Houston’s passing will, like Jackson’s, spur a wholesale reappraisal of a troubled performer — will she be seen as an icon or will she be viewed in a more limited way, as a once-glittering product of the Reagan era that made her famous.
While Jackson’s sales had plummeted for years after his mid-1980s heyday as the “King of Pop,” his 2009 death revived his catalog, with more than 10 million albums and 16 million song downloads since then. Houston faces long odds in matching that, partly because her estate has less material to sell. Her career encompassed just six studio albums, not including soundtracks and compilations; Jackson produced 10 as a solo artist, and that’s not counting the anthologies or his work with the Jackson 5.
“It’s hard to compare Whitney’s catalog of work to Michael’s, because with Michael you had the biggest-selling album of all time, ‘Thriller,’ and he also had a couple more albums that were global phenomena: ‘Off the Wall’ and ‘Bad,’ and to a lesser extent, ‘Dangerous,’ ” Keith Caulfield, Billboard’s associate director of charts, said Monday. “The short-term impact will be largely restricted to her greatest hits album and ‘I Will Always Love You,’ and everything else will be three steps below.”
But for now, Houston — whose last No. 1 single was 1995’s “Exhale (Shoop Shoop)” — is selling big.
“Whitney: The Greatest Hits,” a two-CD collection released in 2000, had sold close to 50,000 copies by the end of Sunday night, enough to put that title back into the Top 10 of the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart next week, Caulfield said.
Seven of the top 10 album sellers on Amazon on Monday were by Houston, and her famous 1992 version of “I Will Always Love You” — one of the best-selling records of all time — was No. 1 on the iTunes chart.
Houston’s rich voice is filling the radio airwaves again as well. John Ivey, senior vice president of programming for Clear Channel Radio, whose network of about 850 stations makes it the largest radio owner in the country, said he quickly made the decision to put Houston’s music in rotation after word of her death broke Saturday.
Much of Houston’s appeal is generational. For fans of a certain age, her songs symbolized carefree youth, romance and self-discovery, leading to the unmatched feat of seven straight No. 1 singles. “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” “Greatest Love of All,” “Saving All My Love for You” — each provided the soundtrack to countless teenage birthday sleepovers, bachelorette parties and wedding receptions.
While Houston’s acting wasn’t greeted with equal acclaim — she was nominated for a Razzie for her work on “The Bodyguard” with Kevin Costner — her movies were hits and offered another way to connect with her fans. Her last film, in which she stars and served as executive producer, “Sparkle,” is set for release later this year.
Since the late 1990s, though, Houston had become far better known for tabloid headlines than music. Her $100 million deal with Arista in 2001, a record at the time, yielded platinum albums that nevertheless delivered a mere fraction of her earlier sales. Meanwhile, her drug abuse and tumultuous marriage to singer Bobby Brown became a perennial source of gossip.
Meanwhile, pop music moved on. Today’s chart toppers hark back less to the smooth 1970s R&B that Houston reinterpreted and more to European dance music, hip-hop and electronica. Even Adele, who dominated Sunday’s Grammys with six awards, has more in common with blues-tinged singers such as Etta James than with Houston’s brand of pop.
But artistic reputations ebb and flow in unexpected ways, and there’s little telling what value future generations might find in Houston’s music — if they listen at all.
“When you reach that level of popularity, it’s because you are an individually unique and precious talent, and that’s what sets you apart from everyone else,” Caulfield said.
“In death, you can’t compare them to anyone else. Their uniqueness is what made them a star. ... There’s no metric, no formula to figure this out.”
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