Making the case for “I Will Always Love You” as one of the all-time great love songs is tricky. The track emerged to thunderous acclaim during Whitney Houston’s most irrefutable pinnacle of fame. While the movie the song came from, The Bodyguard, could hardly be called cinematic gold, the draw of Houston appearing in her big-screen debut was enough to make the movie a hit, and the song went a very long way in making that happen.
As everyone and their grandmother know by now, it is a cover of a song originally performed by Dolly Parton. In recent times it has become something of a punchline, an audio flag that not so subtly shouts “Diva Alert,” a turning point in pop music where “just enough” was demoted to “not nearly enough by half,” and the soundtrack to wanna-bes everywhere who are doomed to make jack-asses of themselves. Yet when you strip all that away and concentrate intently on the tune itself, it holds up. It works, and so does Houston. She sings it without kneading it as much as selective memory wants to believe.
It is not, as I often believed, the opening salvo of the melisma wars that would be openly waged by Mariah, X-Tina, and so many American Addled. It’s actually more the end of an era than the beginning, and taken succinctly on its own merits, reminds the listener of just what a singular talent Whitney once was and breaks your heart all over again for all that followed.
On the eve of the Grammy Awards, publicist Kristin Foster made the announcement that Houston had died at the shocking age of 48. Rest in peace, Miss Whitney. Your demons can’t touch you now.