It’s one of the great ironies of national history that arguably the most memorable, stirring and pristine rendition of the American National Anthem was performed by a descendant of African slaves. When Whitney Houston stepped onto the field January 27, 1991 ahead of Super Bowl XXV, the American psyche was split. Yes, Tampa Stadium was packed with 73,000 fans eager to see whether the 16 and 3 New York Giants or 15 and 4 Buffalo Bills would emerge victorious. But, football wasn’t the only national preoccupation then.
Ten days earlier, Apache Helicopters filled the air over the Persian Gulf as Allied Forces launched the first strike in the Gulf War. The country was at war and the greatest American sports spectacle took a back seat to thoughts of our armed forces’ well-being in a foreign land. Game time electricity was a hyper-charged mix of pastime and patriotism.
If ever an instance existed when a home run was needed at a football game, that was it. And Whitney stood in the batter’s box ready to deliver. Donning a white leisure outfit with a matching headband that encircled the sweep of her classic natural curly up ‘do, Whitney stood ready for the task. She was the picture of calm and confidence as she listened for the orchestra’s brass section to sound her E-flat cue. Perhaps the national stage is a little less frightening when you’ve got a prerecorded protection copy of the song at the ready.
Lip synced or otherwise, Whitney treated America and the World to a “Star-Spangled Banner” rendition like none heard before or since that time. With effortless alacrity and clarity, the true diva belted out a melisma-free performance that shames the acrobatics of today’s pretend divas. Hers was a diamond among glass, a gemstone amid jagged rocks. But, Whitney’s pitch perfect presentation of our nation’s anthem was more than just good music or even the stuff of legends.
Whitney Houston’s singing of the national anthem was transformational – not simply for its musicianship, but for its symbolism. In a moment that predated 9/11, she delivered the nation’s most patriotic song at the most patriotic of times.
This American daughter of African bloodlines intoned the wonder of this great nation – a nation that enslaved her forefathers and foremothers and denied them the privileges and dignity of freedom decades after the law called them free.
Sure, other African American artists notably had and have performed The Star-Spangled Banner at major events. Jimi Hendrix’ iconoclastic interpretation at Woodstock in 1969 and Marvin Gaye’s soul-filled styling at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game were unforgettable and intoxicating in their own rights. Even Luther Vandross placed a stamp of ownership on the Anthem with his velvet-voiced recital at Super Bowl XXXI. However, Whitney Houston’s National Anthem resonates with a singular profundity and poignancy dictated by the magnitude of the moment.
In a pre-Barack Obama America, it was a healing moment – one of reconciliation and redemption. There stood an African American woman singing at the top of her lungs our collective heritage. Whitney’s was a song James Weldon Johnson might have said was full of the hope that the present has brought us. “Despite it all,” Whitney sang, “we love this country too.”