Whitney vs. Mariah: Divas Back in the Ring

By Tony Sclafani
|  Saturday, Aug 29, 2009  |  Updated 2:45 PM EDT
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Whitney vs. Mariah: Divas Back in the Ring

AP

Mariah sells out for a song.

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Sometimes things turn out different than you expect.

A few months ago when word got out that Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey would drop high-profile CDs around the same time, it seemed easy enough to predict the fate of the often-compared big voiced, virtuoso vocalists. It looked like the ever-popular Carey would score yet another hit, while the 46-year-old Houston, who hasn’t been heard from in years, would probably struggle to find an audience again.

But that’s not what happened. When Houston put out the title track of her forthcoming album, “I Look to You” as a single, the retro piano ballad was met with such a strong response that on July 28 it was announced that the release date for her album was moved forward from Sept. 1 to Aug. 31. It was only a one-day change, but it was symbolically significant.

Carey, on the other hand, keeps delaying the due date of her forthcoming effort, “Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel.” Entertainment Weekly reported the date was “repeatedly pushed back,” first from Aug. 25 to Sept. 15, and then again to Sept. 29. The magazine also said Carey postponed appearances on NBC’s TODAY show and VH1’s Storytellers.

Just after news of that drama hit the press, it was announced that Houston would appear as the first guest of “The Oprah Winfrey Show’s” 24th season on Sept. 14. The singer will give her first full-length interview in over five years, which the hyperbole-prone Winfrey called “the most anticipated music interview of the decade.”

Though Houston and Carey were never rivals per se (and even sung a duet for the film “The Prince of Egypt”), they’re mentioned in the same breath because they emerged within a few years of each other and competed for chart dominance in the 1990s. They also popularized the now overused showboating vocal style termed “melisma,” where a singer stretches out a syllable over a succession of notes. Since their CDs are soon to be vying for chart dominance, it’s easy to think of them as dueling divas once again.

To get why the recent turn of events seems like something out of Superman’s Bizarro World, we need to step back and look at their respective histories.

Big voices
When Houston emerged in 1985, her clear, powerful vocals were something new entirely. Sure, she sung R&B in the gospel-derived style of Aretha Franklin, but Houston’s voice was more flexible and she was as comfortable with mainstream pop as she was with R&B.

Before long, Houston had racked up seven No. 1 hits in a row from 1985 to 1988 and became a dominant force in pop. Baby Boomer critics sometimes found her crossover material too far removed from traditional R&B, but in hindsight, Houston’s pop savvy now seems progressive. Had she done straight R&B, she’d have been copying her influences, not building on them.

Houston’s biggest commercial success came in the early 1990s with a rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the massive hit “I Will Always Love You,” from her movie “The Bodyguard.” Within a few years, though, Houston’s career was sidelined by her personal life, which tabloids claimed went downhill after she married Bobby Brown. Her last CD was 2002’s “Just Whitney,” which was both a commercial and artistic disappointment.

Carey first came to mainstream attention when her very first effort, the single “Vision of Love,” catapulted her to superstardom because of the amazing vocal prowess she displayed. Her vocal range sounded like it reached endless octaves, and while she sometimes seemed like a Houston protégé at first, she eventually developed her own vocal style, which was more playful and sexy.

After concentrating on ballads with hits like “Hero,” “One Sweet Day” and “Without You,” she moved into hip hop in the mid-1990s, and became even more popular — and much more interesting on an artistic level. A brief but well-publicized period of personal turmoil followed the failure of her movie “Glitter” in 2001.

Since then, though, she’s had nothing but mega-success with the albums she’s put out (which include “Charmbracelet,” “The Emancipation of Mimi” and “E=MC²”). The last of those albums yielded “Touch My Body,” which became Carey’s 18th No. 1 hit, and broke Elvis Presley’s record for most chart toppers by a solo artist.

Role reversals
If this was a mystery story, this is where they’d say “the plot thickens.” Houston’s album was made available for review, and… it’s pretty damn good. Beyond “I Look to You,” Houston emotes convincingly on the catchy follow-up single “Million Dollar Bill” and holds her own with Akon on the reflective mid-tempo dance number “Like I Never Left,” which the pair co-wrote.

As the recent Los Angeles Times review observed “the classic voice isn’t there anymore,” but that actually works to Houston’s advantage. In the same way Frank Sinatra’s cigarette-and-whiskey damaged voice pushed him to be a more expressive vocalist as he aged, Houston’s rougher tone now forces her to avoid larynx gymnastics and sing like she means it.

Variety has also reported that word has been building in the industry that Houston’s album could mark a major comeback. Could this have rattled the sensitive Carey? Or was it that Carey’s album’s lead single, “Obsessed,” stalled on both the pop and R&B charts, failing to crack the Top 10 in either market?

Either way, Carey had 11th hour regrets about “Memoirs,” and scurried back to the drawing board to cut more tracks. One of those tracks is a cover of the Foreigner oldie “I Want to Know What Love Is,” which will be her next single and is out already in Europe. YouTube has blocked its stream in America, but you can hear it on the site of Perez Hilton, who is none too enthused about it. It might be telling that Carey has chosen to go retro after Houston did.

So as August melts into September, we’re left with the impression that these two mega-voiced divas have switched roles. Houston now looks like she’s coming out on top, while Carey appears to be the underdog.

Sometimes things turn out different than you expect.

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