In 1991, when Whitney Houston agreed to perform “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Super Bowl XXV in Tampa, America had just gone to war in the Persian Gulf and was looking for signs of hope and encouragement. What Houston delivered was a performance that forever altered the way America’s national anthem is performed in public. On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of that event, Cinque Henderson has written an appreciative New Yorker article entitled “Anthem Of Freedom” that analyzes both the origins and the influence of Houston’s landmark rendition. The article arrives, Henderson points out, as Houston’s legacy is under assault from two different directions. First, ex-husband Bobby Brown is about to write a tell-all book including unflattering details about the singer’s private life. And second, perhaps even more disturbing, a Greek billionaire is planning to “recreate” Houston via hologram for a touring show. While Brown’s book may tarnish Houston on a personal level, the proposed hologram “threatens her legacy as an artist.” That, Henderson says, it what’s most unfair.
Cinque Henderson witnessed Whitney Houston’s artistry in 1999 while in the employ of choreographer Debbie Allen at the Oscars. When an arrangement for a duet with Mariah Carey wasn’t working, Houston intuitively knew how to fix it. That is what Henderson most wants to express with this article: Whitney Houston truly understood music. Yes, that famous Super Bowl performance was lip-synced. But most of the performance came from Whitney’s very first take of the song, one she made immediately after hearing bandleader Rickey Minor’s Marvin Gaye-inspired arrangement. To quell any controversy, Houston later performed the anthem live on a TV special without the benefit of lip-syncing, proving she could do it. What’s more important, her performance of the song, especially her exultant high note on the word “free,” became the template that other singers soon followed and continue to follow to this day. With this performance, Henderson says, Whitney Houston managed to reclaim a song whose violent imagery can be troubling for the black community.
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. 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. Now when we listen to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” it is the echo of Houston’s voice we hear. In the instant of her singing, a quarter century ago, Houston changed what it sounded like to be American. For this, she should be duly remembered.