On Monday it will be 7 years since Whitney Houston’s death.
And since I just watched Whitney, the Kevin MacDonald documentary of her life on Netflix, here’s a story I think you’ll find interesting.
First, a little context.
I was never a fan of her music.
And I’ve never had any particular fondness for the U.S. national anthem either. When well sung it’s rousing, to be sure. What I’m less about is its war imagery and vague undertones of neo-imperialism.
That said there’s one clip of Whitney Houston I’ve watched at least 50 times…her singing of The Star Spangled Banner at the 1991 Superbowl. I think it’s one of the most insane vocal performances mine ears doth heard.
I get chills every time.
I never knew the story behind it, though.
To hear her music manager tell it, they gave her rendition some serious thought. You see, African Americans have also had an iffy relationship to the anthem because it’s about some of the state organs of violence that – at times – have been targeted toward black people.
The song is typically a waltz performed in 3/4 time.
So what they decided to do was adapt it to 4/4 time.
They reasoned this would give Whitney more space to hold out the big notes.
Plus, all black music is in 4/4.
He redid the arrangements. Had the orchestra rehearse it. And they hated it. Nevertheless, he sent Whitney the recording, “what do you think”? But never heard back. It wasn’t until a week before the big game that he saw her and she admitted she hadn’t heard it.
She said, “play it.”
Then leaned back, closed her eyes, and listened intently.
When it was over, all she murmured was, “got it.”
What the world heard that day was the unrehearsed first take.
Watch it here:
For anyone who knows anything about music, let alone performing, that is…CRAZY. It’s genius on another level. Here she was this young woman with a big voice, on the world’s greatest stage, letting it all hang loose.
Indeed, freedom is ultimately what the lyric is meant to convey.
And it’s what you feel as she sings it.
I don’t think it’s possible to overestimate the power of this moment. I may not be her #1 fan. But for that alone, damn if she wasn’t one of the most badass singers to ever walk this planet.
Hats off, Ms. Houston.
One more thing…
Genius and talent played a role.
But that level of command, both musically and over her performance, would never have happened if her mother Cissy – herself an accomplished vocalist – hadn’t drilled them into her from a young age.
What if she hadn’t?