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Published February 16 2012

Morast: Whitney Houston’s an icon, but not in the way you think

Whitney Houston’s funeral is Saturday, providing a final end to the tragic story of this gifted pop vocalist.

If you watch the funeral – and there are reports it’s going to be televised live – you’ll hear people talk about Houston’s remarkable talent, about her legacy of hit songs and maybe even her acting career.

You’ll also hear a lot of references to Houston as a “musical icon.”

And while it always feels a little sleazy to criticize the recently dead, I can’t cosign this notion that Houston is a true musical icon.

Granted, much of this icon classification is subjective and, frankly, irrelevant – what does an “icon” get, an imaginary trophy?

But it’s always a topic of great interest. Especially when stars die. And it always makes me wonder, what is an icon?

In my mind, it’s somebody who proved to be so important in their given field we can’t imagine a world without them.

Michael Jordan is a basketball icon.

Steve Jobs is a technology icon.

Nikola Tesla is a scientific icon.

Steven Spielberg is a film icon.

Ernest Hemingway is a literary icon.

And Whitney Houston is not a musical icon.

Even if you isolate her just to the world of female singers, she didn’t affect her industry like Patsy Cline, Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, Dolly Parton or Barbra Streisand did.

I don’t even think Houston measures up to Madonna; which will probably be considered sacrilege by some people who still think “The Bodyguard” soundtrack is the pinnacle of female singing.

Again, I’m not trying to kick a woman when she’s dead. But so often we, as a society, attach hyperbolic praise on the recently deceased.

Earlier this week Tony Bennett said Houston was the greatest singer he’s ever heard.

While it sounds like Bennett was hit with the hyperbole stick, he might also be right. Because if we’re talking about sheer singing ability, few can match Houston’s range, projection and ability to infuse her voice with emotion.

But while she was a great vocal technician, Houston never struck me as an artist creating music that enacted cultural change or summarized any one aspect of the human condition – except, I suppose, hitting all the right notes.

For instance, look at Houston’s two most memorable performances.

One is the national anthem. Meh. Everybody with a good voice owns this song at some point in their career.

The other is “I Will Always Love You,” a song Dolly Parton wrote and released more a decade before Houston did. And, my opinion here, Parton’s performance is better; it has a more dynamic range of emotion that relies on subtleties and tenderness to underscore the song’s point: one-way love hurts.

Houston’s take on “I Will Always Love You” just feels like someone waiting to show off her very impressive vocal abilities. It’s not touching or tender.

But it does showcase a singer with an iconic voice.

While I don’t think she’s a musical icon, Houston is a vocal icon.

She’s an ’80s icon.

She’s an icon of untapped potential.

She’s an icon of tragic celebrity stories.

And she’s a sound bite icon for her forever classic line “crack is whack.”

But she’s not a musical icon with transcendent persona or art that defined a generation – or even a moment.

And that’s what might be the true tragedy of Whitney Houston; in the ’80s everyone was betting on her to be the female singer of her generation. But when I reflect on her career, I just think of unfulfilled talent.

That’s not the type of reaction an icon should create.

Readers can reach Forum Features Editor Robert Morast at (701) 241-5518 or rmorast@forumcomm.com