Grammys flashback: Whitney Houston’s win for ‘The Bodyguard’ soundtrack wasn’t a foregone conclusion

Whitney Houston is undoubtedly one of the most legendary singers in modern recording history. Across multiple decades, she released iconic singles like “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” “I Have Nothing,” and of course the legendary Dolly Parton cover “I Will Always Love You” for the movie “The Bodyguard.” That film’s soundtrack is itself one of the most successful albums ever. But just how Houston did it can tell us a lot about her massive stardom, the importance of narratives, and how the Grammys don’t always snub Black artists.

Four other nominees filled the Album of the Year category for the 1994 Grammys. Perhaps the least likely to win was a certain Donald Fagen, who you might know better from Steely Dan, with his second solo album “Kamakiriad.” That bid was kind of weird considering he was nominated nowhere else and there weren’t yet nomination review committees you could point to to explain the anomaly. Fagen’s nom was definitely the reward; he’d go on to win the category a few years later with Steely Dan, so probably no hard feelings there.

R.E.M. was also nominated for “Automatic for the People,” which was arguably the most acclaimed of the pack and also charted well. However, the band had won three awards previously, so there probably wasn’t a rush to honor them this time, which turned out to be the case: they lost all their nominations in 1994. Billy Joel was also nominated for “The River of Dreams.” Both the album and its lead single of the same name were major successes, but Joel actually lost Best Male Pop Vocal Performance to perhaps Houston’s biggest competition: Sting.

The rocker was a Grammy favorite for a while, and his “Ten Summoner’s Tales” was no different. The album won the important Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical prize, as well as Best Male Pop Vocal Performance for “If I Ever Lose My Faith in You” and Best Music Video for the album’s title track. Being a genre-blending, critically acclaimed album by a Grammy darling, Sting was likely second to Houston for Album of the Year.

But how did Houston manage to win, despite Black artists being commonly overlooked at the Grammys? Perhaps the biggest reason was that, although Whitney made R&B music, she was just as big as a pop star. So she had voters from two big genres supporting her, and she was accessible to pretty much any other type of voter too. Artists like Stevie Wonder and Lionel Richie also benefited from this for their respective Album of the Year wins in prior years.

Speaking of Richie specifically, his win for “Can’t Slow Down” actually resembles Houston’s in the sense that they were both such massive hits that voters ignored the most critically beloved nominee in their favor. This factor at the Grammys is one that we see play out a lot: think Taylor Swift’s “1989” over Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp A Butterfly,” or Adele’s “25” over Beyoncé’s “Lemonade,” or even Billie Eilish’s “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” over Lana Del Rey’s “Norman F*cking Rockwell.” Having the biggest hit means you have the most listened-to record, which helps you reach the most academy members, and it also means that voters might want to honor the strong impact you’ve had on the music scene.

But Houston’s victory shouldn’t just be written off as “the biggest album always wins.” She was not universally predicted to take the award (Billboard thought it was Joel vs. Sting, while LA Times predicted Sting), and the Grammys have a notorious reputation of snubbing Black female artists in the top categories, so it definitely shows how widely respected Houston was. It also might be evidence of one key factor: narrative. In 1994 many might have thought Houston was overdue some major awards in the top races; despite previous noms for Album and Record of the Year, up to that point she had only won a couple of times in genre categories. Meanwhile, Sting had already won a general field award (Song of the Year for “Every Breath You Take”).

Furthermore, “The Bodyguard” was not only an opportunity to honor Houston, but to honor the many icons also attached to the win: executive producer Clive Davis and producers BeBe Winans, Babyface, L.A. Reid, and David Foster. All of these were big names behind the scenes who likely attracted many votes.

When it comes to general field awards, it’s nice to be able to say Whitney Houston has two (she also won Record of the Year for “I Will Always Love You”). It’s also nice to see a Black woman win the top prize, as has happened so rarely at the Grammys; it happened just once before her with Natalie Cole‘s “Unforgettable… with Love,” and once after with Lauryn Hill’s “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.” Perhaps we’ll see the same at these upcoming Grammys, with Beyoncé riding that same wave with overdue factor and big names attached to her project “Renaissance” as well. Only time will tell, but regardless, long live Whitney Houston. We will surely always love her.

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