50 Most Memorable Super Bowl Moments, No. 16: Whitney Houston's national anthem


As the NFL approaches its highly anticipated golden anniversary Super Bowl, Yahoo Sports takes a look back at some of the most memorable moments in the game's history.

In our rankings, the moments go beyond the great scores and plays. We also take a look at entertainment performances, scandals/controversies and other events associated with corresponding Super Bowls.

Here's a look at moment No. 16:

Star-Spangled Spectacular

Sports are a never-ending debate about who's the greatest, who's the strongest, who's the best.

There is no debate, however, about the best national anthem ever performed before a sporting event. That honor belongs to the late Whitney Houston.

"Here's the difference," says former New York Giants linebacker and two-time Super Bowl champion Carl Banks. "You go through so many anthems, and that one catches you. You lose your train of thought, and you find yourself so into it, it's incredible."

Houston's performance before Super Bowl XXV in Tampa, between Banks' Giants and the Buffalo Bills, is still recalled as clearly as the game itself, which was a classic that came down to the very last play. Her anthem is the standard for what a rendition of the song should be, bold and vibrant and even defiant in a time of war. And even though the players on the field had plenty to think about in the last moments before a game they always imagined, many became engrossed in the performance. Tears streamed down faces all over the stadium.

"It was the most moving experience that I've had," Banks says.

Asked when he realized that, he says, "By the word, 'see.' "

It wasn't just the power of the song, either. It was the way Houston sang it.

"Generally, nonoperatic songs have a range of about six to eight whole tones," says renowned vocal coach Ron Anderson, who was in Tampa Stadium that day and has coached stars including Alicia Keys and Adam Levine. "The national anthem is 11 whole tones from bottom to top. Most accomplished singers can manage this range, but the difficulty is to keep the quality of the voice consistently solid from the lower tones, called the 'chest voice,' through the midrange tones of the 'middle voice' into the upper tones of the 'head voice.' "

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Houston leaped through all 11 tones, embracing them instead of simply navigating them. Anderson explains that most anthem singers "pitch the song low" in the early verses, ending in "gleaming" and "streaming," so they can finish high with "free" at the end. Houston didn't need to hold back at all. Anderson remembers how "she starts strong with piercing power, then softens the dynamics for the second verse" before she finally "amps it back up and takes it to church."

That was another remarkable aspect of the anthem: it blended the ritual and seriousness of a hymn and the flair and theatre of a sporting event. Houston dressed like the celebrity she was, with her hair and white outfit commanding everyone's attention, yet her rendition was almost intimate, as if she wrote the song the night before. And in a way, that was the case. Houston's version added an extra beat per measure, to allow her to dwell slightly longer on the notes, and she resisted the NFL's concerns that the change was too liberal. It turned out to be a revelation.

"You understand it's Whitney Houston and it's a performance, so you want to see it anyway," says Banks. "You look at her and she's beautiful. When she started that song, whew, man. She was singing it to me."

So even though the anthem would have moved anyone listening on the radio, the charisma Houston radiated transformed the song and the moment. She smiles and raises her arms out wide before clenching her fists as she delivers the final crescendo.

Whitney Houston smiles after delivering her powerful rendition. (Getty)
Whitney Houston smiles after delivering her powerful rendition. (Getty)

"You can see in her face that for her the song is a gospel-like ode to joy, rather than a solemn patriotic statement," says Anderson. "The way she smiles and forms her mouth on the words on 'oh' and 'o'er' she's at full blast and so deeply committed to the moment that her performance transcends technique to become an inspirational expression of uplifting emotion that's so contagious it's irresistible. That's what every dedicated vocalist aspires to, but it's rarely achieved."

The anthem itself is about resilience and perseverance – "gave proof through the night that our flag was still there" – and Houston sent that message too. Even in a worrisome time, 10 days after the start of the Persian Gulf War, hers was a voice of strength that reverberated for a nation.

"All week we had to live through very strict security," Banks says. "Then that song was as American as can be. You were so proud to be an American as she sang that song. It rang so beautifully."

The anthem was released as a single, and then re-released 10 years later after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Houston donated all the proceeds to charity. It was reported that Houston taped the anthem before the event and then lip-synched it on the field, but hardly anyone cared.

Last year, a list of the top Super Bowl anthems was published, including such greats as Luther Vandross and Beyonce. Yet Houston's was excluded for a simple and obvious reason: it stands completely on its own.

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