As The Film ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’ Debuts, A Flashback To The Time Whitney Houston Needed Only Two Minutes To Uplift A Nation

One woman. One Song. Two minutes that uplifted a nation.

On January 17th, 1991, then president George H. Bush, along with a coalition of other countries, dropped bombs on Baghdad in Operation Desert Storm, signaling the opening salvo of the first Gulf war.

The event was viewed around the world and sparked fears of a terrorist attack on U.S soil.

The bombings, having taken place just day ten days before the game, loomed heavily over the upcoming Super Bowl.

These events called for something that was incredibly foreign at the time — extreme security at a sporting event, the likes of which the U.S. hadn’t seen before.

Whitney Houston, her career skyrocketing at the time, was asked to perform the national anthem in front of millions just before kick-off.

When she did, something extraordinary happened.

As a new film about Houston’s life hits theaters, it’s a great time to dissect how a small part of a remarkable life, showed that one woman, in one moment in time, renewed people’s faith in America.

“I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” the iconic title of one of Houston’s hit songs, is a new film from director Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou, Harriet), written by Anthony McCarten (Bohemian Rhapsody).

The narrative follows Houston, from her discovery by music mogul Clive Davis at her mother’s lounge show in Newark, N.J., to her ascent to global superstardom, including her tumultuous relationship with husband Bobby Brown as well as her battle with drugs, which ultimately led to her tragic death in 2012 at the age of 48.

Three decades ago, when the then 27-year-old Houston decided to take on the task of performing the national anthem in front of those on the field and the millions tuning in for the game, she told music director Rickey Minor that she was inspired by R&B singer Marvin Gaye’s rendition of the song, which he performed for the NBA All Star game in 1983.

Gaye had slowed the melody down, delivering a soulful version and carefully hit on every word of the song.

Houston told Minor that she believed that a shifting the tempo would give her time to really express the words and let them linger.

So, she and Minor took the song, usually performed in 3/4 time and changed the timing to 4/4.

Everyone, from the backing orchestra to the NFL, was taken aback with this new version.

Per NFL rules, the artist singing the anthem must provide a safety recording of their performance, in case there were to be technical difficulties with the live performance.

When Houston’s team sent that recording to the NFL, (which Houston performed in one take), officials wanted a re-recording, saying that the version was too slow and difficult to sing along to. They firmly expressed that what they wanted was for Houston re-record her performance in a more traditional manor. Houston’s team firmly refused.

On the evening of Super Bowl XXV, a frosty January day in Tampa, Florida, Houston stepped up on a small platform, feet away from a live orchestra, in her now iconic red, white, and blue track suit and headband, and belted out what would become without a doubt the greatest rendition to date of The Star Spangled Banner, finishing with her arms outstretched and her head tilted skyward.

750 million people watched the performance.

While most of the conversation about Houston’s singing was extremely positive, there was some grumbling from a few viewers, claiming that Houston had lip-synched the performance.

Although not always the case, lip-synching at the event is fairly standard procedure, as revealed in the book “The Making of the Super Bowl,” which stated that a backup recording has actually been required by the NFL since 1993, due to a near-disaster that scared the league into making a pre-produced vocal track a must-have.

Minor, who has produced multiple Super Bowl performances, has stated that Houston was singing live on the field with the orchestra, but that the broadcast contained the pre-recording.

After the extremely positive reaction to Houston’s performance, Arista records quickly pressed a vinyl version that went to out to radio stations. That single hit #20 on the Billboard Hot 100. Houston donated all of the proceeds from that record to the Red Cross.

After the war drew to a close, Houston performed her version of The Star Spangled Banner live on a naval base in Virginia during a concert entitled Welcome Home Heroes with Whitney Houston.

A decade later, when the United States was rocked by the terrorist attacks on 9/11, there was resurgent interest in Houston’s version of the national anthem and once again the single hit the Hot 100, peaking at #6 on the chart. Once again, Houston donated all of the proceeds from the recording.

In the wake of Houston’s performance, future artists who’ve been asked to perform The Star Spangled Banner have often cited the Grammy-winning performer as an inspiration.

Pink, who was about to take the stage for Super Bowl LII in 2018 to perform the anthem, posted on Instagram, “…..I’ve been waiting to sing this song since 1991 when I saw my idol, Whitney Houston, own this song. And now, my chance has finally come.”

With nearly 30 Super Bowls come and gone since 1991, it’s unlikely that viewers of that game will remember which two teams took the field that day, (it was, in fact, the then-Washington Redskins and the Buffalo Bills), but what they will remember was that a beautiful woman with a powerful voice made a nation feel, in a scant few minutes, united in pride.

And, while the interpretation of the true meaning of the song has seen its share of controversy, through it all, remembering the timeframe in which it was performed, it’s safe to say that there will never, ever be another performance of The Star Spangled Banner to rival Whitey Houston’s.

The feature film about Houston, ‘I Wanna Dance with Somebody’ is in theaters now.

For more about Houston’s anthem performance, please view this CBS Sunday Morning Story.

The performance is also profiled in an episode of ESPN’s E60. This episode, entitled ‘Whitney’s Anthem’ will air Sunday, December 25th at 1am et on ESPN2, and is also available on-demand through the EPSN+ app.