Sunday, February 12, 2012

Whitney Houston:
One nation, two minutes in Tampa, indivisible

Whitney Elizabeth Houston soared yesterday, effecting her transit from this world shortly before 4 p.m., in a fourth-floor room at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. She was 48. I never had every album in her catalog, the way a diehard fan did. I never saw her live in concert. And all too often in recent years, I seemed to track her career by the 128-point tabloid scream of her latest brush with human frailty. My hand to God, I saw it at the end of a checkout counter on Wednesday: WHITNEY COLLAPSES

But I believed she had a lot of mileage left on the meter. So much of Whitney Houston the public persona was built for the long distance. Her music, her sound, her voice — incandescent, churchy but sexy, with a commanding range — was always a part of the ether, the understructure, the musical furniture of our daily lives. To hear one of her classics — “I Will Always Love You,” “How Will I Know,” “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me),” “So Emotional” — was to hear a voice at the upper register of emotional expression, a voice that seemed to embody liberation and the possible, even in the worst of her times. Like Michael Jackson, similarly imprisoned by the relentless demands of a ravenous profession, when she was singing, she was free.

Whitney maybe never better distilled that sense of freedom than when she did so on behalf of a grateful nation. It was at Super Bowl XXV, after the beginning of the Persian Gulf War, and Whitney Houston was there to sing the National Anthem, with support by the Florida Orchestra.

A lot of times what makes history is a deliberate accident, a concatenation of planned events that, when put together, yield an unexpected result. That’s what happened in Tampa, Fla., on Jan. 27, 1991. The patriotic spirit of the Super Bowl is evident in any year, anyway; that year, with the nation on a war footing, it was even more obvious (American flags everywhere, the flyover of jets). But it took Whitney Houston to distill that patriotism to an indelible rendition of our song into a lapidary event.

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The National Anthem in recent years has become a kind of celebrity indulgence, patriotism filtered through comic relief, accidental and otherwise. Who can forget Roseanne Barr’s epic fail at a San Diego Padres game in 1990? Professional singers Michael Bolton and R. Kelly each did their bit to lacerate the song; so did Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler at an NFL playoff game earlier this year, and Christina Aguilera at last year’s Super Bowl.

All due props to Bolton, Kelly, Tyler, Aguilera — and with multiple Grammys on the mantelpieces at home, props are definitely due — but with the flamboyant way they wield their vocal instruments, all swoops and screeches and arabesques, their performances often seem to be all about the singer. And sometimes, it’s really all about the song.

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Whitney Houston understood that in 1991, understood it in a way that was unmistakable. The liberation embodied in her clarion mezzo-soprano on that evening in Florida mirrored our own sense of liberation, that which we enjoyed as Americans, and (faint hope) that which we sought to ensure for a subjugated people in another country.

Rendered in a clear voice, with no histrionics or multi-octave acrobatics, the national anthem on that night became Whitney’s own. Never mind the troubles that beset her in later years; on that night in Tampa she was a conduit, a medium, a vessel through which was channeled for two electric, galvanizing minutes the ideals of a nation, transmitted in a version of the national anthem no one’s done better than, before or since.

I wept when I first heard it watching the game in 1991. And I can’t listen to it now, today, without tears, but for very different reasons.

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Whitney Houston earned two Emmy Awards, six Grammy Awards, 30 Billboard Music Awards, 22 American Music Awards, and sold more than 170 million albums and singles worldwide (a number certain to climb now). But for all her international achievements, for this listener, a brief but always shining moment, two minutes at the Super Bowl, best revealed what the American national anthem could be, what it could mean to anyone from any vantage in the American mosaic.

For me, that’s what weds me to Whitney Houston’s voice. When she sang the anthem, she was one with this country. And we were one with this country. All of us. And thanks in part to her gift to the nation — bigger than legislation, more charitable than politics, immune from party and spin — we still are.

Image credits: Stills from the ABC broadcast, via YouTube.

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