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Why 'I Will Always Love You' Is Whitney Houston's Ultimate Song (Analysis)

"The Bodyguard" was a hit movie that spawned a 17 million-selling soundtrack and a single that, as a veteran music journalist argues, was the pop icon's finest moment.

"I Will Always Love You"
David Corio/Getty Images

This story first appeared in the Feb. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" -- a cover of a Dolly Parton single from 1974 -- was released on Nov. 3, 1992. It debuted at No. 40 the Billboard Hot 100 and took two weeks to hit No. 1, where it stayed for 14 weeks, a record at the time. As we all remember, it came from The Bodyguard soundtrack, a messy sales powerhouse that was front-loaded with six Whitney tracks (including her "I'm Every Woman" cover and the gospel number "Jesus Loves Me") and then swiftly slid into Kenny G territory. What we might not remember is that the soundtrack went on to sell 17 million copies and break SoundScan's record for single-week sales. Twice. (First it shattered the mark held by Guns N' Roses' Use Your Illusion II; seven days later, it became the first album to sell more than a million in a week.) Oh, and The Bodyguard earned a Grammy for album of the year, and "I Will Always Love You" won record of the year as well as best female pop vocal.

PHOTOS: Iconic Singer Whitney Houston's Life and Career in Pictures

"I Will Always Love You" is Whitney's greatest moment and one of the greatest moments in American pop. It was bravura, sentimental and subject, as many of her recordings were, to bland studio touches that sound frustratingly disengaged (in this case, a sax solo you'd rarely hear outside of a dentist's office). Yet it also was monumental, undeniable and, as many of her recordings were, a triumph of vocal ability that presents itself as human indomitability. The caesura just before the drum beat, and she takes off for that impossible note? It's a moonshot, and we get to be strapped into the rocket and take the ride with her. And that she laces everything up to that point with a tangle of vulnerability and joy makes it even more amazing, like she's painting five or six different pictures before deciding, screw it, let's just go Technicolor!  3D!! We'll need a bigger theater!!!

Still, 17 million copies or not, 1992 is not remembered as Whitney Houston's year. It's remembered as the time of Nirvana and Dr. Dre's The Chronic. Part of the reason could be that The Bodyguard soundtrack was her last album -- if you think of it as a Whitney album -- for six years. (She married Bobby Brown in July 1992; their daughter was born the following March.) But a bigger reason is that the menacing anomie of Nirvana and Dre fit the narrative a lot better than Whitney wishing us joy and love. It was the year of the L.A. riots, after all. Music of alienation and instability seemed to capture a moment when everything was cleaved apart. And though now it's clear that the music of Nirvana and Dre appealed to a mass pop audience -- in fact, to each other's audiences -- then the myth that this music was directed at separate audiences was hard to shake.

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It's also a myth that "I Will Always Love You" takes aim at and obliterates. Even if you never knew this was a country cover, it still crosswires genres and audiences and upends the notion that black and white music (and audiences) don't talk directly to each other. Whitney had planned on covering Jimmy Ruffin's 1966 Motown hit "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted" until she heard it was being used on the Fried Green Tomatoes soundtrack. It was Bodyguard co-star Kevin Costner who brought in Linda Ronstadt's version of "I Will Always Love You." The doomed romance of the lyric, and the way it's at pains to find good wishes in sadness, fit the interracial Romeo-and-Juliet love story of the film much better. Whitney copped Ronstadt's arrangement -- Parton's original is actually much closer to a classic soul ballad -- and her power note at the end. But her vocal takes Parton's high-lonesome pain as a jumping-off point and goes wild from there, rounding through operatic technique, blue yodels and gospel before climaxing in pure Elvis-in-Vegas glory. It's almost like a historical tour of American singing -- or America itself.

VIDEO: Reactions To Houston's Death

As with so much pop music, it's an enactment of American potential, an expression of an ideal of unity that is usually nothing more than that: an ideal. Except for the time it takes to listen to one song or to dance to another. Then it's an ideal in action. Not for nothing was the other song consistently mentioned in the hours after Whitney's passing her recording of "The Star-Spangled Banner" from the 1991 Super Bowl, an African-American reclamation of the national anthem less audacious than Jimi Hendrix's or Marvin Gaye's but no less powerful.

A final thought: It's striking how many Whitney songs are, like "I Will Always Love You," songs of heartbreak. I mentioned this to someone in passing and was immediately corrected -- what about the uptempo pop hits? What about, "I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)"? Or "How Will I Know"? But even those are searches for love -- she's not actually dancing with somebody who loves her right then; she isn't with someone who she knows is the one. Of course, that's not how these songs come across. What we remember isn't that the singer is having an affair with a married man in "Saving All My Love for You." What we remember is making love the whole night through.

That's worth remembering now: how Whitney could turn every lyric, every song, into an expression of jubilation. It's a gospel singer's touch, and it's the one she left us with.

Joe Levy is a veteran music writer, magazine editor and TV commentator.