It didn’t have to happen like this. As the story goes, Clive Davis first heard Whitney Houston perform at a club in 1983, when she was 20. He was not the first who hoped to make a star of her. Labels had sought her out since middle school. But her mother, gospel singer Cissy Houston, had carefully and thoughtfully managed her daughter’s career throughout her teens, making sure that she graduated from high school. This was a time when patience was still possible. Houston’s eponymous debut album wouldn’t come out for two years, and it wasn’t an immediate hit. But then came the singles: the polished “You Give Good Love,” the instantly familiar “Saving All My Love For You,” the MTV-ready “How Will I Know.” By the end of 1985, Houston had established herself as one of the decade’s most promising crossover stars.
After all, diversity wasn’t yet seen as a virtue in the mid 1980s, with radio stations, magazines and MTV still quite segregated. The time was right for a star capable of playing to all crowds and Houston’s wholesome glamour fit the bill. Her 1987 album Whitney set all sorts of sales records, including ones that put her in the same conversation as the Beatles, Elton John and Bruce Springsteen. Whitney accentuated all of her debut’s most appealing moves: The ballads were classy and polished, the dance tracks joyfully modern. “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” and “So Emotional” were ubiquitous that year, while “Didn’t We Almost Have it All” epitomized the splendor of the 1980s ballad. Despite its crossover aspirations, there were gestures toward the world had nurtured her as well: a fine cover of the Isley Brothers’ “For the Love of You,” as well as “I Know Him so Well,” a duet with her mother. Listening to it all 25 years later, in light of Houston’s passing, it’s difficult not to long for the album’s youthful effervescence. The scars were imagined, the highs still rising. This was a young woman entering a world not of her own making, taking those first, confident steps toward discovering just how gigantic it would allow her to become.