But maybe the best descriptor is this: radical.
Three decades on, with the country engaged in a fresh reckoning with racial hierarchies, Houston’s performance feels just as inspiring as it must have been in 1991.
To understand the significance of Houston’s performance, reflect on Tony Kushner’s masterpiece, “Angels in America,” which premiered the same year. One scene exquisitely captures Black Americans’ frequently skeptical stance toward the US.
“I hate this country. It’s just big ideas and stories and people dying and people like you,” says Belize, a Black ex-drag queen. “The White cracker who wrote the national anthem knew what he was doing. He set the word ‘free’ to a note so high, nobody can reach it.”
Houston reached it, though. In fact, she did something more: She made “free” the emotional centerpiece of the song. Decades later, when people think back to what was so viscerally moving about Houston’s rendition of the anthem, they invariably land on that word, on how she stretched and nourished it over multiple counts.
In putting an often-imitated-but-never-duplicated flourish on “free,” the singer injected new life into a concept that’s always been kept just beyond Black Americans’ reach.
“It was the most influential performance of a national song since Marian Anderson sang ‘My Country, ‘Tis of Thee’ on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on the eve of the Second World War,” Henderson wrote.
Further, while Houston sang the same song as every other person who has sung the anthem, her rendition stood out because it was singularly bravura, with its acrobatic chord changes. She made the exemplary version of a song that was never written for a person like her, as Belize says.
The political context of Houston’s performance added an additional layer of meaning. For one thing, only 10 days before the event, the US had entered into the Gulf War.
In its own way, then, Houston’s seismic, soaring reclamation of a freedom anthem functioned as an act of emancipation in a society that had trapped Black Americans on its margins.
Thirty years later, Houston’s rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” has lost none of its emotional resonance.
Revisiting Houston’s performance today doesn’t exactly elicit a feeling of triumph; after all, many of the same dangers that threatened Black lives 30 years ago still loom. But it does offer comfort, recalling in electrifying fashion that, despite everything, it’s possible for Black Americans to create space in the national mythos.