Once news of Whitney Houston's death on Saturday spread from one phone to the next and over the dinner table and across the restaurant and into the streets, I went rummaging through my memory in search of which of her songs could possibly claim a place as my favorite.
Aside from the sheer selection of Whitney hits to choose from, and the extent to which her heyday has shrunk into the past, one thing made combing her catalog for a high point particularly difficult. This:
It's become something of a cliche to say that a gifted singer redefines the songs she sings. Here, in 1991, with the Persian Gulf War tearing at the nation's nerves and an uncertain decade just beginning to crack open outside the walls of Tampa Stadium, Whitney strolls onto the stage in a jazzy little tracksuit to sing "The Star Spangled Banner" and just plain defines it.
Right now, Facebook and Twitter are bursting at the seams with Whitney-related quips and tributes; and while "How Will I Know," "The Greatest Love of All," "I Will Always Love You," and "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" are surely claiming fresh space on many an iPod this weekend, I've been surprised at just how many have turned to this performance at Super Bowl XXV as the purest remembrance of her talents.
You'll likely be hearing it a lot over the next few days, weeks, maybe even months -- however long it takes for us to reassemble an image of Whitney whole enough to properly bid farewell. And for good reason; it's flawless.
I was 15 at the time, and I recall how she silenced our living room: Her voice rose like the hues of that lored twilight's last gleaming, then tenderly traced the stripes and stars -- as though the fabric of the flag was between her fingers. She gave the watch kept o'er those tired old ramparts a new sense of hope and an uncanny note of longing; and when her voice suddenly soared skyward, those rockets had never glared quite so red. Even the orchestra seemed to fall to its knees before Whitney's assurance that the flag was indeed still there.
At the time, the magic of this performance was the way she transformed our tensions into tingles -- her conviction became ours for a few fleeting moments, and that big, galvanizing smile turned 80 million living rooms into something like a nation. Rarely do song and singer achieve such perfect balance.
Perhaps its most striking quality is its simplicity -- it stands as a stunning specimen of pre-Mariah, pre-Xtina, pre-Beyonce pop diva realness: No histrionic experimentation, no self-indulgent runs, no wardrobe malfunctions or backing tracks -- just Whitney, singing a song we all know by heart and, in doing so, reminding us why it lives there in the first place.
Moreover, removed from her then-dominant catalog of bouncy pop confections and chart-melting ballads, it was a performance that brought the full awesome power of her voice into sharp focus -- and we've still yet to hear one quite like it.
Nevermind who would dare take such a clean, clear, and classic approach to the anthem today -- who could?