Time has a funny way of smoothing out the past. The bumps and detours of future history can be traced back and moulded into a more pure memory. Of course, those moments were never as honest as our memory wants them to have been, but in the case of Whitney Houston’s Super Bowl XXV performance, there still remains a sense of clarity breaking through the haze of history. In January 1991, Whitney Houston was an unimpeachable icon, arguably the greatest singing voice of her generation, and the United States had just entered its first war since Vietnam. The result was arguably the country’s most patriotic moment since Armstrong’s small step. It was a rendition that would stand as a precursor to the patriotic fervor of the 2000s, and serve as a template for the more cynical post-9/11 intertwining of sports and militarism. The national anthem is by definition bombastic and soaring and in Whitney’s emotional vocalizations, it reached its full potential. As Danyel Smith would write, Houston’s slower arrangement “not only increased the national anthem’s level of technical difficulty, they amplified its soul. They made it the blues.”
Looking back is the job of the historian and in this rearview perspective, we see the various strands of American culture grow and bend, often at odds but always intertwined. In that fleeting moment, the national anthem and the Super Bowl became more than just a game or a corporate product. If perhaps only an illusion, for those three minutes in 1991, Houston gave the global audience a singular, shared experience. The nightly concerns over crime, racial tensions, a shifting economy, and of course the outbreak of war were all subjugated to the pomp and circumstance of the spectacle. We could feel it at the time and we can still feel it decades later, watching the performance on technology not yet imagined at the time.
The Super Bowl remains a national unifier, the place where every facet of society merges into one commercialized festival of Americana. Houston’s path took a different turn, but her mark and legacy changed the history of the Super Bowl.