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Why Whitney Houston Deserves a Spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (Column)

A bad choice, or an overdue one, for a hall that's been stingy on recognizing women of color who rose to popularity after 1970?

Whitney Houston
Courtesy Whitney Houston Estate

Every year when the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announces the candidates for its next induction class, cheers and shudders threaten to drown out the sound of music. The Class of 2019 was the strongest one in ages (Stevie Nicks! Roxy Music! Radiohead! Janet Jackson! Def Leppard! The Cure!) — and it still didn’t satisfy everyone. When the 2020 class is announced on January 15, it likely will be divisive enough to keep us debating until induction night next May 2.

The nominees list, announced in October, covers a lot of musical ground, with a number of posthumous citations and no sure things.

Pat Benatar
Dave Matthews Band
Depeche Mode
The Doobie Brothers
Whitney Houston
Judas Priest
Kraftwerk
MC5
Motörhead
Nine Inch Nails
The Notorious B.I.G.
Rufus featuring Chaka Khan
Todd Rundgren
Soundgarden
T. Rex
Thin Lizzy

It’s hard to argue with the musical merit of any of these performers… but with the words “rock ‘n’ roll” screaming volume, guitars and a decidedly DIY aesthetic, what’s a lady like Whitney Houston doing in a place like this?

She’s been eligible for induction since 2010, 25 years after the release of her eponymous debut album, but this is just her first nomination. The Rock Hall hasn’t gone out of its way to honor women who came to prominence after the 1970s. So far only Madonna, Joan Jett and Janet Jackson have scored invitations, leaving a number of major post-’70s stars, including Houston and Benatar, in the ignore pile until now.

Although Houston scored a breathtaking run of chart hits, massive albums and Grammy wins before her death at age 47 in 2011, her legacy wasn’t just a commercial one. She never wrote a song as timeless as “Edge of Seventeen,” one of the hits that made 2019 inductee Stevie Nicks immortal, but regardless of her not-rock-ish credentials, peak Whitney (circa 1985 to 1998) deserves consideration.

Here are five reasons why she should make the final cut.

1. No ’80s or ’90s singer influenced more young black girls (and gay men and drag queens).
As much of a mark as Pat Benatar stamped on the ’80s, Houston’s reach was considerably more dramatic than Benatar’s best shot. She may not have invented melisma and coloratura, but her cool elegance and glass-shattering alto-to-soprano inspired black girls (and a lot of white ones) growing up in the ’80s while also leaving them duly awe-inspired. Houston gave many of them their first black female role model.

Without her, we might not have Mariah Carey, Christina Aguilera, Kelly Clarkson or Ariana Grande today. Hard as it might be to believe it now, she was the Beyoncé of her time. Young ladies looked at her and dreamed of one day walking in her shoes to collect their billionth Grammy. In an era when celebrities were still a universe removed from the everyday masses, she helped make pop stardom aspirational.

Before her, the idea of a female black singer racking up No. 1 hits on the Hot 100 with such ease seemed like a fantasy. She paved the path to crossover pop-soul success that Janet Jackson, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé later took up the charts and into record books.

2. We need to respect the art of interpretive singing.
OK, so she didn’t write any of her hits. But Carly Simon, John Denver and Barry Manilow did  —  they wrote the songs, and look where that’s gotten them with Hall voters. None of them has ever been nominated.

But at least they get credit for creativity. Not writing your own material is a perceived shortcoming that likely has kept a number of worthy performers out of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (ahem, Three Dog Night) and made Linda Ronstadt a super-belated inductee in 2014. But consider this: Nat King Cole didn’t write the Great American Songbook, the source of so much of his best material, and yet his 2000 induction as an Early Influencer was a no-brainer.

It’s time for rock ‘n’ roll purists to recognize that one doesn’t have to write songs to make them live forever. Elvis Presley became the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll almost exclusively singing other people’s songs, and although Aretha Franklin wrote some of her classics, few of the Hall of Fame’s early female inductees were prolific songwriters. Did that make the talent Dusty Springfield possessed any less remarkable? Anyone who can turn “The Star-Spangled Banner” into an actual hit single, which Houston did in 1991, deserves credit for being a miracle worker.

3. If the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is just about “rock” music, what are Brenda Lee and Dusty Springfield doing there?

Rock elitists continue to justify leaving certain artists out of the Hall of Fame by saying, “But they’re not rock ‘n’ roll.” During the first three decades of inductees, voters haven’t been particularly consistent in applying the “rock only” prerequisite.

Still, for every Lee or Springfield that’s been welcomed in, dozens of others have been shut out. A Whitney induction might help to open those doors (finally) to other deserving talents outside the traditional “rock” genre, including Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn and maybe even Frank Sinatra.

And if we’re being brutally honest, no matter where you want to file Houston’s music, few music superstars have had a true Hollywood story that’s more rock ‘n’ roll than hers.

4. She was far more versatile than she’s been given credit for being.
Her critics often dismissed her work as whitewashed middle-of-the-road soul, but once she established her superstardom, she didn’t always take the easy road to No. 1.

She turned a forgotten Dolly Parton composition from the ’70s into a Valentine’s Day anthem for the ages (“I Will Always Love You”), and on her 1999 album “My Love Is Your Love,” the woman who much of the black community booed and dismissed in the ’80s as white-on-the-inside held her own with the street-credible Lauryn Hill, Wyclef Jean and Missy Elliott on production and Faith Evans and Kelly Price at the microphone. “My Love Is Your Love” made Houston an eternal member of the “I’m black and I’m proud” club.

5. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame needs more sisters with voices from the modern era.
Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight were obviously going to get their due from the start. Donna Summer and Janet Jackson, though, got in only after several failed nominations. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has been stingy with its invitations to black women who started making music after 1970 or were still putting out hits then.

Houston’s fellow 2020 nominee Chaka Khan, who now has been up twice solo and twice with her previous band Rufus, is still waiting her turn. Dionne Warwick and Patti LaBelle may never get theirs. Diana Ross was recognized as a member of the Supremes in 1988, but the Rock Hall is still pretending her groundbreaking solo career never happened.

And poor Tina Turner. She had to share her 1991 induction with Ike, the ex-husband who physically abused her for years, even though her musical contributions as a solo act are far more notable than those she made under Ike’s fist.

An in for Houston wouldn’t be just a belated posthumous triumph. It would be a win for black women in music, from Mariah Carey to Mary J. Blige to TLC to Lauryn Hill to all the Whitney Houstons of tomorrow.