When Whitney Houston sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the start of the 1991 Super Bowl, she redefined how Americans see the song that serves as their national anthem. In a compelling breakdown of Houston’s artistry for The New Yorker, writer Cinque Henderson said the iconic performance, 25 years after its occurrence, still “confounds understanding.”
“Its hold on us, however, can be attributed, ultimately, to a single powerful effect: the startlingly beautiful sound Houston makes when she sings the word “free.” This was a sound for the ages,” Henderson writes.
Ahead of the performance, Houston told her arranger and bandleader that the only version of the anthem that she liked was Marvin Gaye’s performance of the tune at a 1983 N.B.A. All-Star Game, and Rickey Minor took note. He changes the song’s classic 3/4 time signature to 4/4, which allowed Houston to “nurture the notes,” Henderson said. Though it was pre-recorded before Houston took the field a tracksuit, America’s most beloved vocalist only needed one take. Henderson explains: “The version we now know—with its sure-footed, pitch-perfect opening, its forte-piano drop down to a pianissimo on the third line, its jazzy swagger as she takes the curve at the bottom of the song—is ninety per cent what she sang on that original take, only seconds after hearing the arrangement for the first time.”
Below, watch Houston’s incredible performance that’s still celebrated decades later:
Read the full story at The New Yorker.