Whitney Houston’s “Star Spangled Banner,” 1991

19 February 2012

Is there any song more difficult to sing than the Star Spangled Banner?

Is there any song so familiar to us that has lyrics so convoluted, so martial? As national anthem tunes go I’d say it weighs in on the “more memorable” side of the coin, but I’m not sure I’d commit to anything more enthusiastic.

But watching Whitney Houston’s rendition, done at at the opening ceremony for the 1991 Super Bowl, is something else. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard something so spectacular: she takes a hoary old tune — and a big, quaint old orchestra with lots of brass behind her — out of its usual skin and plants it straight into the black church for a lesson in gospel. What she does with her voice here, and what she does to that difficult song, is by all measures evidence that she possessed a gift for channeling joy and glory — all the more summoned by her perfect pitch, that beautiful, beatific face, and her long, long arms, reached out to the sky:

She starts out deceptively, singing it straight up with the usual message and tenor; if anything, you’re impressed by the strength and volume of her voice. (That woman had breath.) But by the end of the second line — “the twilight’s last gleaming” — she drops into something more intimate, makes you lean a little closer. Those middle lyrics are sung with a low quietness, with only glimpses of the spectacular melisma she could perform with her voice. When she gets to the stunning joyousness of “And the rocket’s red glare” — she seems to leap across octaves as if she’s summoning angels, closing her eyes and belting out those words with a defiant volume, chin lifted to the sky. Ignore the words: Whitney’s singing something else.

By this time it feels like another song altogether, one you don’t know so well. Physically, her body moves not like that of a pop goddess or a diva but the soloist of a gospel choir in the midst of ecstatic communion, with her head moving freely, her arms and shoulders engaged. There’s nothing to make fun of here — nothing overwrought or over-exposed, the way we got tired of hearing “I Will Always Love You” from that awful film The Bodyguard (1992). No, this is something else, something commanding.

By the time she gets to that last impossible line and that high note, “O’er the land of the free,” it’s just otherworldly — just when you find yourself thinking, “how does she hit that note so right on?” she goes up an octave and seems to use her full body to extract every ounce of vocal energy. This is about coming through slaughter, about resilience, about breaking the chains. This is about exile and return, and this is about community and grace.

Finally she takes the last lyric home, on what I’ve always thought was a weirdly ambivalent final note in the song with “and the home of the brave.” Rather than do what most singers do — pretend the ambivalence isn’t there and make that note resolve — Whitney draws out the ambivalence as long as she can, preferring to nail the resolution with sheer stamina in the way she holds the final note for what feels like minutes. She brings us home — shows us the promised land, gathers us together in love with her long, long last note, the power of her breath.

Que en paz descanse, Whitney.


5 Responses to “Whitney Houston’s “Star Spangled Banner,” 1991”

  1. servetus Says:

    Beautiful tribute. It is possible to be ambivalent and patriotic — thanks for pointing out how this performance demonstrates that.

    I always think of “The Greatest Love of All,” but probably because I played it as an accompaniment for so many singers in those years.

    • Didion Says:

      I always think of “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” which is one of those pop songs I had an embarrassing affection for (perhaps because I have an abiding love for songs about yearning). Someone just hunted down and posted the vocal track by itself, so you can hear Whitney and the choir behind her singing, in effect, a capella:

      • servetus Says:

        What was so great about that was the way that she wanted to dance *with somebody,* but the song made it feel like she was already dancing.

  2. Didion Says:

    Exactly! And it also felt like those high school dances, at which you danced but wanted to be dancing with somebody special. Gorgeous — it captures all that frenetic movement, reaching out, failures….

  3. wriggles Says:

    I was enthralled by both performances! Thank you.

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