The 2012 Billboard Music Awards aired last night. Many absurd things took place. “Empress of Soul” Gladys Knight presented Best Male Artist and screamed “Lil Wayne” for probably the first time in her life, Carly Rae Jepsen performed her sensation “Call Me Maybe” while donning an outfit from the dELiA*s spring seasonal catalog, and 75 percent of legendary rap group Goodie Mob were, again, presented as Cee Lo’s Pips for both the song “Fight to Win” and a weirdly awesome MCA tribute, by way of “Fight for Your Right.” Also, for those of you convinced of the Mayans’ end-of-days predictions, Lil Wayne’s The Carter IV won Top Rap Album, which is just a hard thing to hear and then to see in print the following day.
There was also a Whitney Houston tribute, which is my cue to stop talking about everything else.
The 10-plus minute tribute to the gone-but-not-forgotten star (winner of 26 Billboard Music Awards, including last night’s posthumous Billboard Millennium Award) was extremely well done and moving, from an introduction by Whoopi Goldberg to John Legend’s rendition of “Greatest Love of All.” To accept the award, Whitney’s daughter, Bobbi Kristina, and Houston’s sister-in-law made their way to the stage and, with extreme grace despite the high emotions, spoke on what the outpouring of love and support meant to them and their family. While witnessing Whitney’s child speak was certainly a moment in itself, what took place before will undoubtedly stand the test of time when it comes to Houston and how her life was celebrated.
Even before the applause had finished for Legend, Jordin Sparks walked onto the stage to sing “I Will Always Love You.”
Her presence in the tribute had been announced days earlier, and I can’t say that upon hearing the news I was jumping with excitement. The decision was logical, seeing that Jordin is playing Whitney’s daughter in the remake of the 1976 film Sparkle. But while it made sense, the thought of the “Battlefield” and “Tattoo” singer belting “I Will Always Love You” on such a grand stage was terrifying. There was never a doubt in my mind that she could sing, but (as evidenced in the 2012 Grammys, held two days after Whitney’s death), some things are best left for J-Hud.
But then Jordin walked out and started singing. She looked more stunning than she ever has. (“Stunning” is an adult word that I just learned, used to mask the lust in my heart for her for three minutes last night.) And, to my slightly trained ear, she was hitting all of the notes. But when one speaks of “I Will Always Love You,” these early notes are insignificant. This song is a two-minute buildup to perhaps the most vocally intense 45 consecutive seconds of popular music ever recorded. “The Note” is often what gets most, if not all, of the attention in the song, but equally as impressive is the onslaught of runs that take place after.
When Jennifer Hudson sang “I Will Always Love You” at the Grammys, the decision was made to avoid that iconic note and the end of the song entirely. Upon hearing Hudson’s performance, resident Grantland Diva-ologist Jay Caspian Kang chimed in on her special rendition:
With a day to prepare, she stood up and knocked out half of THE BIG SONG in front of a grieving country and had the good sense to leave the GREATEST NOTE IN AMERICAN RECORDED HISTORY alone. Hudson’s rendition was respectful, nuanced, and paid deference to Whitney without feeling like a second-rate knockoff.
Up until last night, I completely disagreed with this statement. I thought J-Hud should have gone for it, because she has the notes in her arsenal, and while there’s no denying how beautiful her Grammy performance was, especially given the circumstances, I still, selfishly, wanted the full song in all of its glory. But after hearing Jordin’s brave (and successful) attempt to do the whole thing, I now completely agree with the aforementioned statement, and with Hudson’s rendition. It was perhaps too soon to hear an exact replica. At that time, we needed to be listening to Whitney’s version and nothing else. While the belief that no one can sing “the note” like Whitney still rings true, even after Jordin’s performance, it seemed as if enough time had passed to finally hear a first-rate tribute. Anything too soon after the tragic news would have seemed like a second-rate knockoff, even if it were spot-on.
Looking at Jordin’s performance, this represents her third career peak. The first two, which were only a year apart (winning American Idol at age 17, the smash single “No Air” featuring Chris Brown), were important because the first was her introduction to the world, and the second showcased her ability to have a post-Idol career. While she has remained in the spotlight since 2008’s “No Air” with other highly charting singles, her collaboration with Chris Brown was her most culturally relevant moment. This third peak, proof that she (1) can really sing, and (2) is worthy to cover a legend in tribute, officially puts her in a new class of artist, one comprised of capital-s Singers and not simply pop female vocalists. And, in very Whitney-esque fashion, it shows her as a young woman whose voice trumps all, but shows off a glamour beyond her years.
Between this, a duet released today featuring Sparks and Houston from Sparkle (Whitney’s final recorded song), and her acting performance in the film (Sparks’s film debut), we could be witnessing the coming of age of an artist that has finally figured out her pop culture lane. Or it could simply be another high point in her hot-and-cold young career. However it works out, there’s no taking away what she did last night. In a high-pressure situation, one where her tenuous career couldn’t afford a dud, she exceeded all expectations. And most important, she nailed “the note.”