I read somewhere that this album was the best selling album by a woman in history. (At the time, obviously.) I don’t know whether or not that’s true but it is the best selling debut album of all time and has sold 22 million copies. Why?
It’s not the songs. Houston tackles some covers but most of these songs were written for her and, well, you can kind of tell. The quality of the covers is nearly uniformly better than the songs written for her. My experience is that, aside from “How Will I Know” if the song is catchier than others on the album, it’s probably a cover of an existing song/hit. (The exception on the covers side is “Hold Me”, which does nothing for me but which existed prior to this album.) The new material is not great. For me, the strongest thing here should be “The Greatest Love of All” except that song’s pre-chorus is better than its chorus, something I’ve only noticed because I have now listened to it too many times. (And that one’s a cover, obviously.)
And I’m pretty sure it’s not the sound of the album, either. I know everyone went a little crazy in the ’80s and so this wouldn’t have sounded dated in 1985 but it sure does now. And it doesn’t really distinguish itself from other music at the time. I am thinking of Madonna’s music, for example which is at least interesting even though it is extremely reliant on ’80s musical technology.
So it has to be Houston, herself, right? I guess people felt like they hadn’t heard a voice like this in some time, or something like that. And she does a pretty great job, showing off on occasion but also restraining herself admirably at times. (Think about Mariah Carey in comparison, who wants to show off all the time.) I particularly like her second run at the pre-chorus in “Greatest Love of All”, where she really bites into it. But does her voice transform this very blah record into a phenomenon? I certainly don’t think so.
She just has an incredible voice, everything else about the record – the songs, the arrangements, the sound, the glossy version of R&B – just doesn’t work for me at all.