Passing on the Crown: From Whitney to Adele

It’s patently unfair to compare the incomparable Adele to the legendary Whitney Houston. But I’m going to do it anyway.

Not just because Adele’s sweep of this year’s Grammy’s will forever be linked with Whitney’s tragic death. And not because, as of this writing, Adele’s album, 21, has now spent 20 weeks at No. 1 on the US pop charts, giving it the longest run in the top spot since Whitney Houston’s 1992 soundtrack to The Bodyguard, which also coincidentally achieved 20 weeks in that position.

I’m comparing them because I couldn’t help but think of Whitney as I was watching Adele’s delightful reaction to the tsunami of love washing over her from the Grammy audience in response to her performance of “Rolling in the Deep”.

As soon as she finished singing—it was her first public performance since undergoing vocal cord surgery in November—she giggled and shivered. As she looked up at the packed venue, taking it all in, she had a look of awe and humility on her face. And, if that didn’t already endear Adele to any remaining people on Earth who didn’t already love her, she lightly hugged herself and half-curtsied to a heartfelt standing ovation and an encouraging wave from Sir Paul McCartney, no less. Adele’s expression seemed to say, I could never have imagined this growing up. I’ve really made it. I deserve it but I don’t take it for granted.

Her humility, her easy intimacy with an audience (later in the broadcast, she joked, “Oops, got a bit of snot” as she accepted the Grammy for Album of the Year — and would soon be crowned at the BRIT Awards, as well), her absolute un-diva-ness all contrasted with my impression of Whitney Houston over the years. And it got me wondering whether these qualities of Adele’s will last and will help her avoid the sort of fate that befell Whitney.

They both are (were) tremendous natural talents. But, while legend has it that both of them were discovered, Whitney was discovered and then created. Clive Davis, superstar-maker at Arista Records, introduced Whitney to the public on the Merv Griffin Show in 1985, but held back on releasing her first album for two years. He wanted to ensure that it would be a blow-out success (it was), enlisting the crème de la crème producers and songwriters in the business.

At a time when it was normally considered tacky for celebrities to do television commercials, the combination of Whitney’s stunning looks (she’d worked as a model before achieving fame as a singer) and phenomenal voice were put to use promoting AT&T, Diet Coke and Sanyo. In other words, her looks seemed nearly as much a factor in her breakthrough as her singing. I suppose that’s fine for other singers but, considering she had one of the best voices of the 20th century, I wonder what it felt like for Whitney to have to be the “total package”.

And let’s face it, some of that packaging was geared towards making sure Whitney was a so-called crossover artist, appealing to white as well as black Americans. Even before her breakthrough as a performer, she’d also had the pressure of representing African American women rather than just herself, including being one of the first women of color to appear on the cover of Seventeen magazine (in 1981,15 years after the height of the Civil Rights Movement). She was also born into a family of female music stars: her mother (gospel singer Cissy Houston), cousin Dionne Warwick, and godmother Aretha Franklin. It makes sense that pride, rather than humility, helped define Whitney.

Adele, on the other hand, more than most stars I can think of—and certainly more than Whitney—seems to have had the chance to simply be herself. She was “discovered” on MySpace. She writes or co-writes most of her own songs rather than singing songs by established hitmakers. Humility and self-deprecating humor, quintessentially British traits, come naturally to her. And, unless you want the sort of verbal beatdown by her fans that fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld received for calling her “a little too fat”, don’t expect her to be a size zero anytime soon.

I find it particularly poignant that, while Whitney lost control over her vocal power in recent years, presumably due to drug use and lack of proper care, Adele made sure to preserve her instrument, canceling tour dates in order to have surgery and give her voice a rest. That’s exactly the sort of choice that someone who knows herself and is free to be herself is free to make.

RIP, Whitney. Stay strong, Adele.