A group of The Urban Daily writers have been in a heavy discussion today. What and who is the definition of an icon? Webster’s Dictionary defines icon as a person or thing regarded as a representative symbol of something. Because that definition is a bit broad, they narrowed the topic down to who was the most iconic female artist of the 90s. Needless to say, the first name thrown out was Whitney Houston’s. Naturally, Whitney was pitted against Mariah Carey. Both have made history and been celebrated for their vocal talents. On the other hand, Houston and Carey have suffered public embarrassment because of their behavior. The icon conversation ended in a stalemate in the office. So I (@JaySpeakEasy) suggested to let our readers decide who’s career was more iconic. Whitney or Mariah?
Whitney Houston debuted in 1985 on The Merv Griffin Show. Her mentor, Clive Davis, introduced her by saying, “Either you’ve got it or you don’t. She’s got it!” With her rousing rendition of the Broadway hit, “Home,” Houston stole hearts and began building anticipation for her first album. Davis fashioned her more as a sweet faced pop princess than the beautiful around-the-way girl from Newark, New Jersey she actually was. Despite the revamping of her image, Whitney’s voice was undeniable. She sang with soul, conviction, and power. In a retrospective article, USA Today wrote of how Houston’s entrance into the music industry is considered one of the 25 musical milestones of the last 25 years. It stated that she paved the way for Mariah Carey’s chart-topping vocal gymnastics.
Much of what USA Today said is true. Mariah’s rapid rise to stardom might have taken more time had it not been for Whitney’s church bred pipes not opened music listeners minds. However, Mariah Carey would’ve been a star regardless. With a five octave range and an abundant use of her whistle register, she was bound to dominate pop music. Mariah’s fame came because of 80s singer, Brenda K. Starr. Carey and Starr happened to be at a party where Columbia Records executive, Tommy Mottola, was. Starr passed him Carey’s demo and the rest is history. Mottola spun Carey’s public image in the same way Houston’s image was created by Clive Davis. Carey also tasted the same type of success Whitney did with the release of her eponymous debut disc. Mariah Carey yielded four number one hits.
Carey and Houston became hit making machines. The difference was Mariah Carey co-wrote all of her material and Whitney Houston always allowed Clive Davis to shepherd song choices. Around this time, Carey and Mottola’s relationship spilled into a personal love affair. The couple married in 1993. While Mariah was entering wedded bliss, Houston was reveling in being a newlywed. She married Bobby Brown in 1992. Also, Houston began acting. Her first part was in The Bodyguard with Kevin Costner. The film was a huge success. However, the soundtrack eclipsed the film with the power ballad, “I Will Always Love You.” The song netted Houston a record eight American Music Awards and three Grammys. The Bodyguard soundtrack made Houston the first woman to have three singles in Billboard’s Top 20 at the same time.
As 1997 rolled around, Mariah’s marriage was screeching to a halt. The blending of her personal and professional lives began to overtake her marriage. She wanted to add more hip-hop elements into her work and Mottola wasn’t having it. Despite them going through a divorce, Mottola was still Mariah’s boss. Once their divorce was finalized, Carey released Butterfly. She had rappers Puff Daddy, Ma$e, and Bone Thugs N Harmony make guest appearances. Butterfly was a huge success, as was all of her other efforts. Many said Mariah Carey was better than Whitney Houston because Whitney’s My Love Is Your Love album was more of a hit in the R&B community than in her regular pop demographic. The battle between the two was heightened when they recorded a duet, “When You Believe,” for The Prince Of Egypt soundtrack. However, Mariah began to see she wasn’t the best at everything when she threw her hat into the acting ring. Glitter was a disaster of epic proportions. The film was a huge flop and the soundtrack came out on September 11, 2001. Shortly after, Mariah Carey suffered a nervous breakdown.
The media covering Carey’s breakdown was a welcomed relief to Houston. Media outlets speculated on her marriage to Brown constantly. Many believed he introduced her to cocaine and was physically abusive. Whitney Houston returned to headlines when she performed at Michael Jackson’s 30th Anniversary concert and looked like a shell of her former self. The bad looks kept coming as she signed on to star in Being Bobby Brown. The effects of drugs and alcohol were evident. E!’s The Soup named her screaming, “Kiss my ass!” as the top clip of that year.
By 2005, both were trying to make a comeback. Mariah’s worked better than Whitney’s. The Emancipation Of Mimi nabbed Mariah Carey her first Grammys since her debut album. Whitney Houston’s I Look To You debuted on the Hot 100 chart at number one. It sold over 300,000 copies in its first week, but soon slid down the charts. Though neither woman has the voice they once had, they are still the voices of generations. But which one’s voice and career is the definition of iconic?