Anatomy of a performance: Whitney Houston sings 'The Star Spangled Banner,' Jan. 1991
Sometimes historic performances are only recognized in retrospect. It takes time and distance to realize that a high watermark of some kind has been reached.
And sometimes it is immediately apparent that something transcendent and important has occurred, something that will cast a long, long shadow.
On Jan. 27, 1991, after Whitney Houston, wearing a white track suit with red and blue stripes, and a wide white headband, stepped onto the giant football field at Tampa Stadium and, accompanied by the Florida Orchestra, sang a rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner"; the recognition was instant.
It wasn't just what Houston was able to do with her voice. There is a powerful two-way current at work which is one of the reasons for the performance's great and lasting impact. So many singers make the mistake of thinking that singing the national anthem is somehow about them. They see it as a career moment before a captive audience. Whitney Houston, even down to her choice of outfit, shows that she was there not for herself. She was there to embody not only the spirit of the song, but the spirit of her country, to give voice to the inchoate emotions of patriotism, hope, optimism, and togetherness swirling about in her vast national audience. That is quite a tall order. Only geniuses should apply.
Operation Desert Storm had begun only two weeks earlier. It was a tense and anxious time. Houston knowingly sang into that context; she knew her job, she knew what was needed of her. Show business is, at its best, a service industry.
When Houston is introduced, she waves excitedly to the crowd, as though they are all long-lost beloved friends. That is our first indication that she is outward-directed in this performance; there is no posture of self-involvement.
In the first phrase ("Oh, say can you see / By the dawn's early light"), Houston is calm and composed. Her face is not eloquent of anything emotional. But something happens in the next phrase ("what so proudly we hailed"), and you can actually see it happen. It has to be overwhelming to look out at such a crowd, and the energy in that stadium was not just excitement for the game, but fear about world events. Suddenly, on "what so proudly we hailed," she seems to take that in, and her entire expression changes, lighting her up with a glimmer. That glimmer, in her eyes, her smile, the way she looks around her, as though she is standing in her living room with good friends and family, stays with her through the rest of the performance.
I could almost believe that in that moment, Houston thought to herself, "OK. Enough. Time to get great. Time to go eternal with this thing."
In that moment she goes from passive to active.
Throughout, she never becomes self-involved, despite the fact that the notes she hits ("rockets' red glare") are beyond the scope of most mortals. She seems so aware of her environment, she is openly absorbing the energy and then pouring it back out. On "O-o-o say does that star-spangled ...," at around the two-minute mark in the clip, you can see an almost mischievous glint catch her eyes as she looks around, a hint of the excitement and joy she herself is experiencing in what she is doing. It seems to maybe even take her by surprise.
The flow of her voice, along with the traditional military-band orchestration, acts as an enormous and powerful wave, pushing her through the rest of the song. Whitney Houston's genius instrument is obviously well equipped to handle "The Star-Spangled Banner," with its daunting high notes and vast range. Her pipes are a given. But it is what she does with the song that is still striking, and still nearly impossible to match. Almost immediately, her performance became the yardstick by which other renditions will forever be measured.
The perfection of it is in its simplicity. What she is doing with her voice is, at times, quite intricate, but her performance style is open, unblocked, and joyful. She's not separated from us by a vast abyss of professionalism. She has become our voice, our feelings, our dreams. She expands, almost visibly, during the course of the song. The fact that she was lip-synching (or, more likely, singing over her pre-recorded track) does not diminish the performance, although those ignorant of the impossible acoustics in a stadium will tell you that it does. As a matter of fact, it magnifies the greatness of the performance. There is breath in what she is doing, there is a full-body expression (watch her gesture at the end on the two words "of the" - it takes her entire body to get that phrase out), and more than that, there is no distance between The Singer and The Song. The fact that there are those who still refuse to believe that Houston was lip synching is evidence of how phenomenal a job it actually is. That's a professional. That's how it should be done.
I don't often use the word transcendent. But you can almost see Whitney Houston choose to give a transcendent performance. And how she does that is not by digging her heels in to her own awesomeness, by insisting that this is about her and it's her big moment. She does that by quickly and efficiently blowing the top of the roof off of her own talent and capability. She removes barriers instantly, gets out of her own way, and steps into a moment that is far far bigger than she is. She knows it and she rises to meet it.
It's a performance for the ages.