On Sunday Jan. 1991, 10 days before the commencement of Desert Storm — which kicked off with our noble nation dropping 88,500 tons worth of bombs onto the nation of Iraq — Whitney Houston stepped out to the microphone in a red, white and blue tracksuit. With a powerful voice trained in nightclubs and gospel choirs and accompanied by the Florida Orchestra, she then performed one of the best and most popular renditions of the Star Spangled Banner in U.S. history. It became a hit, actually charting at 20 on the Billboard Top 100. After Sept. 11, 2001, it became a hit again, this time peaking at six. It was, of course, not even the main event of the evening. It functioned simply as the pre-game ceremony for Super Bowl XXV. That championship turned out to be quite the nail-biter, but that’s irrelevant for the time being.
The way I see it though, Whitney’s National Anthem has never been more relevant. And what’s important about it today is more than the quality of her vocal performance. Looking at it now can show us how, even if you’re not a fan of football, the Super Bowl is a vital event in the American consciousness. After all, Whitney herself sang it in front of 73,813 people, with an estimated 79.51 million people watching from around the world. This Sunday, in the middle of the violent and desensitizing crises which plague not only our nation but the world at large, Lady Gaga will sing the American national anthem in front of an estimated 189 million viewers. If past performances, including Whitney’s, have been any indicator, fighter jets will roar overhead as the crowd loses their shit over the final note. Like the Super Bowl itself, it will be an orgasmic display of American might. It will be the tightly wrapped ribbon on the gift of our destructive patriotism, the capital letter of the sentence our consumerist bacchanal has now implanted into Western Civilization as unalterable fact.
Part of me is suspicious that the chills and awe I get everytime I watch Whitney’s performance are the same sensual affects so many of our patriots feel when they hear the proto-fascist phrase “Make America Great Again.” I hear it and I know, at some deep level, that I am a part of that machine. Her voice seems to be filled with announcement and revelation, of what exactly I’m not sure. But every little part, every single note shining in that “how the hell can a human being do that” register, makes you believe in the power of the American empire. It is of an aesthetic class which includes religious hymns and battle cries. On an individual level, it makes you feel a part of something beautiful, something utterly sublime. This is America, you think. This is the greatest country on Earth. Ignore anyone else who says otherwise. You want to soar over the Grand Canyon in a slow-motion fly by or, at least, believe that the United States stands for all that is true and good in the world.
Like I said, ten days later, with her final, bold lines still echoing throughout the hearts and minds of Americans, the U.S. military laid waste to the Persian Gulf. The political situation for our coming Super Bowl will be a bit different. Perhaps Lady Gaga’s singing won’t be so rife with militaristic context. However, anyone who hasn’t been living under a rock for the past year will know that the American religion is on the rise. “What happened to the Old America?” many are saying. “What happened to Whitney Houston making us forget that we were about to turn the Iraqi infrastructure into an afterthought?” is what they’re asking.
Whitney Houston’s performance is especially pertinent to our current political situation because it is the ultimate realization of the America that people want back. This is the display of strength that so many Americans want to see. We want the epic scale and sense of importance. We want to feel protected by virtue of muscle-size and good looks. We want to turn on the television, see the best singer in the world, accompanied by the best orchestra in the world, preparing us for the best athletes in the world, and think, “I am a part of this, and everything will be okay.” For a nation so proud of its individualism, we sure do love feeling like someone else is in control.
I’ll be watching the Super Bowl this Sunday. Statistically, I’m sure the majority of people reading this column will be tuning in as well. Certainly, it’s not a sin to appreciate sports or ceremonies. But I urge everyone on Sunday to remember that, at the end of the day, it’s a bit more than a really popular football game. It’s a festival; it’s a ceremony; it’s a goddamn pagan rite of spring.
Stephen Meisel is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Appearances runs alternate Fridays this semester.