We love lists, and they’re thick on my newsfeed every day. Here’s a tiny sampling of lists I saw in just a couple of hours today: “8 ’90s Hit Songs That Are Offensive by Today’s Standards,” “3 ‘overlooked’ red flags that your job is setting you up for burnout,” “10 Things to Never Do After Having a Meal,” “21 Things That Were Cool in the 90s But No One Cares About Anymore,” “16 Laughable Scams That Thrive on the Stupidity of Their Victims.” Lots of these lists have to do with music, like the first one listed above, and they rank things, like all 229 Taylor Swift songs, worst to best, or the 10 best drum solos, or the top 5 reasons the Beatles broke up. And on May 31, 2023, one appeared titled “12 Cover Songs That Render the Original Renditions Entirely Obsolete,” and for some reason I felt I needed to reply to one item. Does Whitney Houston’s 1992 version of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You”—written by Parton and first released in 1974—render Dolly’s version “obsolete.” I don’t think so.
So many of us love Whitney, and rightfully so, though a Rolling Stone list ranking her the second greatest singer of all time is surely a giant over-reach. Jaimee Marshall, writing for the finance and pop culture website Wealth of Geeks, says that Whitney’s “rendition of ‘I Will Always Love You’ has become an iconic masterpiece. Houston’s powerful vocals, emotional depth, and stunning range elevated the song to new heights, capturing the hearts of millions worldwide. Her rendition effortlessly surpasses the original, infusing it with an unmatched intensity and raw emotion.” But I’ve always preferred Dolly Parton’s version.
More and more, it seems, we love power, we love people belting out a tune, some even loving that Frozen song “Let It Go” blaring at us over and over. To me it comes close to bellowing, which sometimes I feel Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” just barely manages to escape. I often—though not always—feel it’s just too much. Someone, at the time Houston’s cover came out, said the emotion in it seemed unearned because it lacked true regret. There’s something to be said for restraint, especially when the song expresses something complex, something you’re not going to want to blare out, like leaving someone you’ll always love. Dolly Parton’s lilting country voice conveys that complex regret beautifully, and the way she speaks the song’s central part while staying in rhythm, prevents the sentiments there from becoming saccharine. If I ever did a Top 25 Vocal Performances list, Parton’s version would be on it. Besides, on another list I saw today, “The 99 Most Popular Musicians of All Time,” Dolly Parton came in at #1, my favorite, Ray Charles, at #5, while Whitney Houston was only at #34.
Instead of making a list, I’ll probably just harken back to the pinnacle of list-making, David Letterman’s “Top 10 List.” I have three volumes of Top Ten Lists in my library. On the back of the first volume there’s the “Top 10 Reasons to Buy This Book” list. #5: You’re mentioned on page 43. #4: Paper made from criminal trees that deserved to die,” etc. Or go to Chris Rock’s parody, which I write about on this site: “Nat X: Top Five Reasons Brothers Don’t Play Hockey.”
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