Most of my friends were listening to much “cooler” music at the time—Depeche Mode, The Talking Heads, Van Halen. But there was something about Whitney Houston that I found captivating, even if admitting it would have made me the laughingstock of the junior high boy’s locker room.
Houston died on Saturday at the age of 48 and while watching her obit on the cable news channels, I kept thinking back to her rendition of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You.” Specifically, I thought about a comment a disc jockey made on a Tucson radio station the first time I ever heard the song when he introduced it back in 1992. He noted that he couldn’t remember any other artist having the bravery to begin a pop song with 43 seconds of a cappella singing—or having the gravitas to pull it off. Just because virtually every other song of the pop era had started with music didn’t mean it had to be that way. She had the confidence to do something different—and, in the process, proved that pop radio would indeed play a song that started with moments of virtual dead air. Meanwhile, the song’s crescendo, or climax, remains one of the most torch-worthy moments in pop history.