On Super Bowl Sunday, there are always two highly competitive events — one between opposing football teams, and the other between a singer and “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Before the Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers play, Eric Church and Jazmine Sullivan will perform a duet of the national anthem. This is a great honor for any singer; it can also be a thankless task. The song is a singer’s third rail. Flub a line or falter while reaching for those high notes, and that blunder will be viewed live by more than 100 million nationwide and enjoy a long afterlife on social media, that tireless collector of receipts.
Though she had performed the song before, perhaps Aguilera was overtaken by memories of the anthem’s undefeated champion: Whitney Houston.
Thirty years ago in Tampa, Houston offered an anthem for the ages. Every singer knows that renditions of “The Star-Spangled Banner” are divided into two eras: Before Whitney and After Whitney. Her version not only became the standard against which all others are measured but her epic rendition gave respite and comfort to an anxious nation at war.
Less than two weeks before Super Bowl XXV, Operation Desert Storm plunged America into a foreign conflict for the first time in a generation. Houston had already been chosen to sing the anthem. Then one of the world’s biggest pop superstars, she wanted to leave her imprint on the song. Others had done so before, most memorably Jose Feliciano at the 1968 World Series (he was rudely booed) and Marvin Gaye, whose soulful version at the 1983 NBA All-Star game had the audience clapping along in rhythm.
Houston was inspired by Gaye’s iconic reimagining, especially his decision to update the bland waltz-like tempo. Rickey Minor, the singer’s longtime musical director, recalled on “CBS This Morning” that Houston also believed a different time signature would allow her “to really express these words and let them linger.”
“The Star Spangled Banner” is a notoriously unforgiving song. Starting in a very low register, it cascades toward absurdly high notes, and singers who don’t pace themselves early find themselves fizzling out before the big finish. It’s not a song for showoffs but for those who understand how and when to give themselves, and the lyrics, room to breathe.
When NFL executives heard Houston’s version, they balked. They were worried, Minor said, that “people would hear it and think, ‘This is not my national anthem.’”
Houston refused to change her prerecorded version. That’s what audiences heard, and even though her microphone was off, she still sang live instead of lip-syncing. She made that dusty war horse, written in 1814 by Francis Scott Key, transcendent and majestic. Houston made it sound like our anthem.
When I listen to Houston’s rendition now, I think of Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Angels in America.” In it, Belize, a gay Black man, critiques the song as symbolic of this nation’s great failings. “The white cracker who wrote the national anthem knew what he was doing — he set the word ‘free’ to a note so high, nobody could reach it,” he said. “That was deliberate. Nothing on Earth sounds less like freedom to me.”
Houston reached it. For two spellbinding minutes, she soared and lifted America. Her anthem was poignant, not mawkish. Even with the same lyrics, it pulsed with compassion instead of combat. And, at the peak of its glory, Houston’s church-trained voice recast patriotism as a love of country, instead of an emblem exclusive to whiteness. It felt as if Houston had gathered a wounded nation in her arms.
Given our fraught current moment, it’s probably no coincidence that the NFL chose Church, a white country singer, and Sullivan, a Black R&B artist, to perform the anthem before Super Bowl LV, again in Tampa. League officials clearly want make a heavy-handed point about unity, though rote symbolism has never moved us any closer to the accountability that could begin to heal this nation.
Of course, it also adds undue pressure to Church and Sullivan, who certainly don’t need more than they will inevitably encounter as soon as they sing their first note. Even if they nail the song, some will still say, “Yeah, but Whitney was better.”
For reasons beyond the abilities of any other singer, Houston’s anthem, which twice hit the Billboard singles chart, will always stand alone. Yes, she was blessed — and blessed us — with a voice of singular magnificence. Yet of greater significance in a moment that craved national solace, a Black woman again selflessly delivered for America what it didn’t even realize it desperately needed.