Exhilarating, glorious, lung-busting: There are countless words that capture Whitney Houston’s rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which the late singer performed 30 years ago, at Super Bowl XXV.
But maybe the best descriptor is this: radical.
When Houston, clad in an unembellished yet no less iconic white tracksuit, stepped onto the field at Tampa Stadium in Florida to sing the national anthem, she didn’t merely kick off one of the most-watched television programs in the US. She took an ode to freedom that was never created with Black liberation in mind – and reclaimed it.
Three decades on, with the country engaged in a fresh reckoning with racial hierarchies, Houston’s performance feels just as inspiring as it must have been in 1991.
To understand the significance of Houston’s performance, reflect on Tony Kushner’s masterpiece, “Angels in America,” which premiered the same year. One scene exquisitely captures Black Americans’ frequently skeptical stance toward the US.
“I hate this country. It’s just big ideas and stories and people dying and people like you,” says Belize, a Black ex-drag queen. “The White cracker who wrote the national anthem knew what he was doing. He set the word ‘free’ to a note so high, nobody can reach it.”
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Houston reached it, though. In fact, she did something more: She made “free” the emotional centerpiece of the song. Decades later, when people think back to what was so viscerally moving about Houston’s rendition of the anthem, they invariably land on that word, on how she stretched and nourished it over multiple counts.
In putting an often-imitated-but-never-duplicated flourish on “free,” the singer injected new life into a concept that’s always been kept just beyond Black Americans’ reach.
“By making the idea of freedom the emotional and structural high point (not just the high note) of the anthem, Houston unlocked that iron door for Black people and helped make the song a part of our cultural patrimony, too,” the writer Cinque Henderson argued in 2016, nodding to Black Americans’ conflicting feelings toward the song (it’s for good reason that “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is widely considered to be the Black national anthem).
“It was the most influential performance of a national song since Marian Anderson sang ‘My Country, ‘Tis of Thee’ on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on the eve of the Second World War,” Henderson wrote.
Further, while Houston sang the same song as every other person who has sung the anthem, her rendition stood out because it was singularly bravura, with its acrobatic chord changes. She made the exemplary version of a song that was never written for a person like her, as Belize says.
The political context of Houston’s performance added an additional layer of meaning. For one thing, only 10 days before the event, the US had entered into the Gulf War.
“A lot of our daughters and sons were overseas fighting. I could see, in the stadium, I could see the fear, the hope, the intensity, the prayers going up,” Houston recounted in an interview. “I just felt like this is the moment. And it was hope. We needed hope, you know, to bring our babies home.”
The era was tense for another reason, too. The “tough on crime” policies of the previous decade – think of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which President Ronald Reagan signed into law in 1986 – were disproportionately afflicting Black communities via harsh prison sentencing.
In its own way, then, Houston’s seismic, soaring reclamation of a freedom anthem functioned as an act of emancipation in a society that had trapped Black Americans on its margins.
Thirty years later, Houston’s rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” has lost none of its emotional resonance.
By mid-June of last year, up to 26 million people all over the country had taken to the streets to protest the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many other Black Americans, making Black Lives Matter the largest movement in US history.
And on January 6, a deadly mob laid siege to the US Capitol, in what was one more example of White backlash to racial equality, to Black power.
Revisiting Houston’s performance today doesn’t exactly elicit a feeling of triumph; after all, many of the same dangers that threatened Black lives 30 years ago still loom. But it does offer comfort, recalling in electrifying fashion that, despite everything, it’s possible for Black Americans to create space in the national mythos.