Once news of Whitney Houston's death on Saturday spread from one phone to the next and over the dinner table and across the restaurant and into the streets, I went rummaging through my memory in search of which of her songs could possibly claim a place as my favorite.
Aside from the sheer selection of Whitney hits to choose from, and the extent to which her heyday has shrunk into the past, one thing made combing her catalog for a high point particularly difficult. This:
It's become something of a cliche to say that a gifted singer redefines the songs she sings. Here, in 1991, with the Persian Gulf War tearing at the nation's nerves and an uncertain decade just beginning to crack open outside the walls of Tampa Stadium, Whitney strolls onto the stage in a jazzy little tracksuit to sing "The Star Spangled Banner" and just plain defines it.
Right now, Facebook and Twitter are bursting at the seams with Whitney-related quips and tributes; and while "How Will I Know," "The Greatest Love of All," "I Will Always Love You," and "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" are surely claiming fresh space on many an iPod this weekend, I've been surprised at just how many have turned to this performance at Super Bowl XXV as the purest remembrance of her talents.
You'll likely be hearing it a lot over the next few days, weeks, maybe even months -- however long it takes for us to reassemble an image of Whitney whole enough to properly bid farewell. And for good reason; it's flawless.
I was 15 at the time, and I recall how she silenced our living room: Her voice rose like the hues of that lored twilight's last gleaming, then tenderly traced the stripes and stars -- as though the fabric of the flag was between her fingers. She gave the watch kept o'er those tired old ramparts a new sense of hope and an uncanny note of longing; and when her voice suddenly soared skyward, those rockets had never glared quite so red. Even the orchestra seemed to fall to its knees before Whitney's assurance that the flag was indeed still there.
At the time, the magic of this performance was the way she transformed our tensions into tingles -- her conviction became ours for a few fleeting moments, and that big, galvanizing smile turned 80 million living rooms into something like a nation. Rarely do song and singer achieve such perfect balance.
Perhaps its most striking quality is its simplicity -- it stands as a stunning specimen of pre-Mariah, pre-Xtina, pre-Beyonce pop diva realness: No histrionic experimentation, no self-indulgent runs, no wardrobe malfunctions or backing tracks -- just Whitney, singing a song we all know by heart and, in doing so, reminding us why it lives there in the first place.
Moreover, removed from her then-dominant catalog of bouncy pop confections and chart-melting ballads, it was a performance that brought the full awesome power of her voice into sharp focus -- and we've still yet to hear one quite like it.
Nevermind who would dare take such a clean, clear, and classic approach to the anthem today -- who could?
Pop heartthrobs Jay Sean and Joe Jonas are kicking off their 18-city fall tour, which also features Foxborough-bred songstress JoJo, in Boston. As the trio hits the road, Boston.com got the chance to chat with Sean, the British crooner behind party-starting megahits like “Down,” “Do You Remember,” and “2012 (It Ain’t The End).” The crooner spoke candidly about his sultry new mixtape, The Mistress, not letting a natural disaster screw up his hair, teaming with Joe and JoJo, and Lil Wayne’s infamous jeggings.FULL ENTRY
(NME.tv animation of craziness following Beyonce and Jay-Z's pregnancy announcement)
It's been almost a week since Beyonce announced her pregnancy and nearly crushed Twitter in the process. As the world awaits the arrival of possibly the most hotly anticipated offspring in recent pop-culture history, and speculation about what the baby will look like and how long we have to wait for the his or her first chart-topping album ramps up, some enterprising celeb-watchers have launched Twitter accounts in the famous embryo's name.FULL ENTRY
The 2011 MTV Video Music Awards went down yesterday, and while the storied trophy handout didn't skimp on the outrageous moments, this year's OMG-inducing events were less about reckless stage-crashing and more about super-sweet PDA.
Arguably the biggest star of the evening hasn't even sung a note yet - let alone release a VMA-nominated visual - but that didn't stop Beyonce's unborn baby from stealing the spotlight. The pop megastar drove Twitter bonkers when she hit the black carpet and revealed she is expecting, showing off her burgeoning bump before the show's kickoff. But she scored an even sweeter moment when she wrapped up her retro performance of the 4 album cut "Love on Top" by rubbing her belly and giggling contentedly. Hubby Jay-Z looked on proudly as Kanye West excitedly egged on his Throne collaborator.FULL ENTRY
While the school year is winding down for most kids, George Li is having a busy month of June. The local piano wunderkind performed Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 last night at a White House State dinner honoring German Chancellor Angela Merkel. (The video above shows him playing the same work in a 2009 recital.)
Li, who is 15 and studies piano at New England Conservatory with Wha-Kyung Byun, will soon be heading off on a European tour soon, performing Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 with the Youth Philharmonic Orchestra.
Changes to the classical radio dial in 2009 left many listeners south and west of Boston without access to a classical radio service, since the city's one remaining full-time station – 99.5 All Classical -- has been broadcasting on a weaker signal. The WGBH-owned classical station has now announced that a student-run station at Bryant University – WJMF 88.7 FM – in Smithfield, RI, will begin rebroadcasting the signal from 99.5 All Classical. According to WGBH, this means that full-time classical radio will be returning to Providence and other areas of Rhode Island.
Whether the new arrangement will benefit other listeners south of Boston who cannot currently tune in programming on 99.5 remains to be seen. The Smithfield station will begin rebroadcasting in August.
James Levine's persistent health problems have cast a shadow over his future at the Metropolitan Opera, but the tributes honoring his four decades of achievement at the house keep coming. Most recent are a coffee-table book and a documentary about Levine at the Met, airing tonight on PBS, titled "James Levine: America's Maestro." Meanwhile, Sirius XM is rebroadcasting 15 performances of operas ranging from "Cosi" to "Lulu."
Harvard University has received a trove of scores and other materials formerly belonging to the legendary conductor Georg Solti. (The first page of Strauss's "Don Juan" appears at left.) Harvard plans to digitize the scores, a gift from the Solti family, to make them available to scholars and performers through a portal on the website of the Loeb Music Library.
The radio station 99.5 All Classical has announced a new line-up of weekend programs.
And congratulations go to Kathy Fay, executive director of Boston Early Music Festival, who will be receiving an award from Early Music America for lifetime achievement in her field.
The great cellist, a founding member of the Beaux Arts Trio, died this morning at his home on Cape Cod.
Greenhouse retired from the trio in 1987 but his recordings are still ubiquitous. A friend of mine at the Eastman School of Music once put his warmly expansive solo from the opening of Brahms's Piano Trio No. 1 (which you can hear above) as the sole greeting on his answering machine. The playing, as he noted at the time, speaks for itself.
The Newport Jazz Festival has a new sponsor.
Festival founder George Wein announced this morning that Natixis Global Asset Management, an asset manager based in Boston and Paris, will be the presenting sponsor of the 2011 Newport Jazz Festival. The firm joins Alex and Ani, a Rhode Island jewelry designer and manufacturer, as this year's sponsors.
The festival has gone through challenging times in recent years.
Electronics maker JVC had sponsored the festival for 23 years until Wein -- who founded the Newport Jazz Festival in 1954 and ran it for 43 years -- sold his production company in 2007 and the rights to the festival to an outfit called Festival Network. Things didn't go well, and financial problems nearly forced the cancellation of the 2008 festival, until Wein stepped back in and took the reins. A year later he landed CareFusion, a medical devices company, as the main sponsor. CareFusion, however, informed Wein last fall that it was pulling out as sponsor.
Wein, 85, acknowledging that he "won't be around forever," announced in January that he's turning the Newport jazz and folk festivals into nonprofits in order to ensure their survival. The Newport Festivals Foundation oversees the events now. (In fact, both festivals started as nonprofits, but Wein turned them into for-profit ventures after his entire board quit in the wake of rioting at the 1960 jazz fest.)
This summer's Newport Jazz Festival is scheduled for Aug. 5-7 at Fort Adams State Park in Newport, R.I. The lineup includes more than dozen acts, including Wynton Marsalis, Joshua Redman, Eddie Palmieri, Angélique Kidjo, Charles Lloyd, and this year's Grammy winner for best new artst, Esperanza Spalding.
(AP photo: Chick Corea at the 2010 Newport Jazz Festival.)