There was a lot of chatter before Sunday night’s Grammy Awards about what sort of tribute the production would give to Whitney Houston, who died in Los Angeles the day before the performance. There was a lot of chatter during, and I’m sure after, the show about whether the tribute the awards gave was enough. The Grammys began as planned with Bruce Springsteen playing his new single; host L.L. Cool J acknowledged Whitney’s loss, and a couple hours later—arguably the ceremony’s climax—Jennifer Hudson delivered an emotionally demolishing read of Whitney’s signature song, “I Will Always Love You.”
(ARCHIVE: Whitney Houston, the Prom Queen of Soul)
But arguably the biggest nod to Houston’s legacy at the Grammys was in the awards themselves. Music lost one of its most legendary divas over the weekend, but it remembered her at a show that was showcased the forceful women who had dominated the year in music, among them an incendiary Rihanna, a confident Taylor Swift, a delightfully insane Nicki Minaj and, of course, Adele, who owned the major categories. It was fitting, if coincidental, that Houston’s tribute night should be such a statement of how central female voices were to pop music in the last year. (The jarringly dissonant element last night was the industry’s lavishing the “comeback” treatment on Chris Brown, who just a few years ago beat up one of the night’s star performers, his then-girlfriend Rihanna.)
It was fitting in another way to see the salute to Houston delivered by J-Hud, who was launched as a contestant (albeit one ejected too early) on American Idol. Houston has always been one of Idol’s ideal benchmarks, an Everest of pop divahood that countless Idol contestants have tried to emulate (and have often been warned by judges against trying to imitate). I’m sure American Idol would have existed with or without Whitney Houston, but it’s hard to imagine it without her influence—the way she molded both the athletic vocal styles of many of the contestants and shaped the image of what a diva performs like. And Idol itself had a sizable presence on stage last night, with not just Hudson but Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood having performances.
Before the show began, viewers were wondering whether Houston’s death would change and consume the entire show. As it turned out, the Grammy tribute to was limited and restrained. But in another way, she was everywhere last night—as she no doubt will be in pop performances, and on episodes of Idol and The Voice, for years to come.