Hi! It's R. Eric Thomas. From the internet?
One of the first non-troversies I remember being exposed to in the pre-internet pop cultural space was the chatter around Whitney Houston’s pre-tape of the national anthem at the 1991 Super Bowl. Looking back, I’m not quite sure how news of the dustup over whether Whitney sang live or sang along to a recording of her own voice reached me, a 9-year-old in Baltimore. Nowadays, I frequently forget how we ever heard about anything in the past. It wasn’t like I was watching the nightly news on a regular basis, although I did keep up with current events through a subscription to Entertainment Weekly, which I read cover-to-cover. I was obsessed with EW, treating it like essential news for living, which it was to me. “Kathy Bates has Oscar buzz,” I’d solemnly inform my younger brothers, then 6 and 3. “I’ll keep you updated.” It’s amazing to me to think about having to wait for an article to be reported, written, printed, and mailed to my house to find out about movie casting news (I would perish if deprived of it) and backstage drama (my lifeblood). Nowadays, I frequently get annoyed if I can’t read a 10,000 word essay on a new project the minute it is announced, despite the fact that I know not a frame has been filmed, nary a note recorded, and not a word written. I sometimes find myself on the other side of that when I announce new projects I’m working on that have been proposed and agreed upon but not yet begun. I love when people write about the news “I need this now!” but I’m also like “you and me both, hon!”
In any case, let’s assume that I read about Whitney’s voice in the weekly entertainment magazine which I studied for hours like the Dead Sea Scrolls. Gossip from those pre-internet, pre-autotune days seems so peculiarly quaint and, frankly, nonsensical now. I guess some of it did then, too. I know we were all still reeling from the revelation of Milli Vanilli’s lip-synch treachery, but it’s hard to believe that anyone thought Whitney was being duplicitous by creating a backup track for a live performance of the national anthem to be broadcast to millions around the world days after the United States had declared war. Even if you have a vocal instrument as pristine as Whitney’s, you don’t do the crossword in ink here. I wish I could remember if people really thought that Whitney, arguably the biggest pop star at the moment with a string of hits, did not have Whitney’s voice. Who did they think was singing on that track? Roseanne? It reminds me of an all-too-similar non-troversy over Beyoncé’s rendition of the national anthem at President Obama’s second inauguration in 2013, which was also pre-taped, again with Beyoncé’s own voice. Some 20 years after Whitney’s performance, the pop culture environment had changed so much and the bad faith takes grown so much more prevalent, that Beyoncé ended up opening her press conference in advance of the 2013 Super Bowl with a live, a cappella performance of the song to quell any lingering speculation about whether she, Beyoncé Giselle Knowles Carter, could sing.
She famously ends the performance by asking the gathered reporters “Any questions?” which is such a superb mic drop. Beyoncé’s like, “I heard you were talking about me so I’d cordially invite you to PULL UP.”
It’s so strange, but sadly not unusual, that we demand impromptu perfection from our favorite artists, particularly and more malevolently from Black women artists, and then get mad when they give it to us. The greater blogosphere has never heard of practice or rehearsal or the process by which sung notes in a microphone get pressed on to CD and cassettes (it’s called recording) and they don’t want to know about it, apparently. (Interestingly, the documentary Paris is Burning was released the year before Whitney’s performance. It’s a seminal entry in the history of drag, lip-synching, ball culture, of which Whitney’s recorded voice is still a central pillar. The complaint, a weak one, about pre-recording a performance boils down to authenticity and veracity. Or, in Paris is Burning parlance, realness. Whitney and Beyoncé in those moments created a cultural text and then, by performing to their own voices, immediately created the first cultural quotation of the text. They gifted us with two—or in Beyoncé’s case three—distinct and unimpeachable performances of virtuosic realness. 10s across the board. No wonder folks stay pressed about it.)
But the perfection is one of the paradoxes of Whitney’s performance of the anthem, a career-best moment for ole Franky Scott Key for sure. She was under constant scrutiny, negotiating a maze of impossible demands in her career already, and then saddled with the nigh-on impossible task of giving us everything we ever wanted, needed, and hoped for at the intersection of celebrity, patriotism, supporting the troops, and singing live in a football stadium with 90s technology.
Of course, she did it. Because she had to; I hope also because she wanted to. Danyel Smith, in her great interview with Sam Sanders on It’s Been A Minute, points out Whitney’s “preparation and grace”, which aren’t antonyms but to me seem to come from completely different parts of the artistic soul. Cinque Henderson, in a fantastic 2016 New Yorker piece, writes about how Whitney recorded the version that we heard at the Super Bowl and that was subsequently released as a single and twice topped the charts (in 1991, and again in 2001 after 9/11), in one take. And she did so after hearing the arrangement for the first time moments earlier. I sometimes wonder if emphasizing the superhuman circumstances around the recording undercuts the point about not demanding perfection from artists. But the way I resolve it is by going back to Smith’s phrase: “preparation and grace”. It was a performance that happened in seconds and it took every single moment that preceded it to come to fruition.
In a practical sense, I mean every moment of Houston’s career, her life of singing and learning her voice, all of herself that she put into it. But in a symbolic sense, I also mean every moment of history leading up to January 27, 1991. It’s impossible to extricate the history of the country and the history of Black women in America from the performance of the anthem then. I think one of the most extraordinary aspects of that moment’s cultural legacy is the context in which it happened, a context which only grows more resonant and more complex the farther out you push. This is a performance that reaches all the way back to the writing of the song itself, farther still, before this nation even existed, before the ideas on which it was built. When I considered the performance in the title essay from Here for It, or How to Save Your Soul in America, and later excerpted the essay in Time, I wrote about the questions that comprise the first verse of the anthem and how that lack of surety is at the heart of America, American history, and patriotism for me. “It’s a concept that has been hijacked and beaten up, sold out and ripped to shreds by those who want it only for its surface rush, and not its arduous roots. Anything good in this country has had to be wrestled free.”
And, 30 years after Whitney carved a space for herself in the national narrative, I’m also thinking about how far forward its context stretches. It becomes about time itself. I meant that figuratively and also literally. When working on the musical arrangement of the performance, Whitney asked Ricky Minor to track down a recording of Marvin Gaye’s 1983 rendition of the anthem, which was slowed down and set to a spare drum track. Minor found it on VHS, according to Henderson, and, with composer Johnny Clayton, Jr., changed the time signature from 3/4 to 4/4. Danyel Smith writes in ESPN Magazine, “By slowing it down, Team Houston and the Florida Orchestra—under the direction of Chinese conductor Jahja Ling—not only increased the national anthem's level of technical difficulty, they amplified its soul. They made it the blues.”
We put so much on Whitney’s anthem, but the performance can hold it. It’s too much to ask of a person, an artist, maybe even a nation. But the performance, the performance is something from another world, another way of existing. When I listen to it now, when I read about it, when I write about it, this performance doesn’t have the same nostalgic tinge that so many other cultural touchtones have. It is still immediate. It is still up there, out there, all around us wrestling with the ideas it espouses, the context of which it was born, the concept of freedom.
Every moment of the song is breathtaking, truly, but Whitney’s gravity-less elevation of the word “free” is what, for me, transforms this from a stunning feat of mastery to a spiritual experience. We are watching the invocation found in the Black National Anthem to “lift every voice” happen in real time, creating a new cultural text. The tension inherent in America is whether the spirit of these two anthems will always wrestle or whether there is an airy space for them to intertwine. Whitney’s anthem suggests that it might be possible, which is a revelation. Every time I think about the way her voice lilts and rises, higher and higher as if expanding the borders of the word “free” itself, I think of a quote by the gay Black character Belize in Angels in America, which was first performed six months before Whitney climbed the platform at the Super Bowl. In a fiery speech, Belize points out, Francis Scott Key “set the word 'free' to a note so high nobody can reach it. That was deliberate. Nothing on earth sounds less like freedom to me.”
I think Belize is right. I also know the truth of Whitney’s performance. And I don’t think one cancels the other out. Nobody can reach it; and she did.
If you want more on Whitney’s 1991 anthem:
“The Lasting Power of Whitney Houston’s National Anthem” on It’s Been a Minute with Sam Sanders
Anthem of Freedom: How Whitney Houston Remade “The Star-Spangled Banner” by Cinque Henderson, The New Yorker
When Whitney Hit the High Note by Danyel Smith, ESPN Magazine
'Anything Good in This Country Has Had to Be Wrestled Free.' by R. Eric Thomas, Time
Random Thing on the Internet
On a completely different note, literally, there’s this magic (Oh how I miss being at a rented beach house and playing this at full volume once a day on the living room TV like a complete maniac):
Maya Rudolph on SNL? Now that’s Black History! Teach the children. And speaking of teaching the children:
Kathy Bates has Oscar buzz,