Today in Tedium: In January 2008, I found myself in an event room of a Dave and Buster’s in Austin, Texas to watch the Super Bowl. My dad’s Army reserve unit was in town doing something, and their commanding colonel arranged for his executive staff to watch the game together, complete with free food and non-alcoholic drinks. Being a poor college student and big fan of my dad, I jumped at the opportunity when invited. It had been a while since I had been around a large group of soldiers so I forgot to stand for the national anthem. Fortunately, my dad nudged me to attention before anyone seemed to notice. After Jordin Sparks hit the final notes and we were finally seated, I turned to my dad and asked, “Do we still have that Whitney Houston tape?” Today’s Tedium, ahead of this year‘s Super Bowl and yet somehow hitting on the 10th anniversary of Whitney Houston’s passing, is looking at one of the most iconic performances ever of a national anthem, and the role it played in the corporatization of American patriotism. — Andrew @ Tedium
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The reported size of the Iraqi military before the Persian Gulf War. Considering the rout that followed at the hands of coalition forces, it is easy to forget how formidable the Iraqi military seemed before 1991. Considerable infantry forces were also buttressed by “6,000 tanks, 4,000 armored personnel carriers and 3,200 artillery pieces, most of it of Soviet bloc origin.”
Some highlights from Super Bowl XXV.
To understand why the 1991 Super Bowl was more than just another championship, we need some context
The confluence of circumstances surrounding the 1991 Super Bowl are complex and global in a way American football rarely is.
On August 2, 1990, Iraqi dictator Sadam Hussein decided to invade Kuwait, a small but oil-rich kingdom on his country’s southern border. Fearing an Iraqi invasion of its own, Kuwait’s other neighbor, Saudi Arabia, requested military assistance from the United States and other nations. And without being too glib about war and death, this situation could not have been better timed for the U.S. government.
The early 1990s saw the rapid downfall of America’s biggest post-World War II enemy. As the Cold War came to end amid the breakup of the USSR, America’s position as the world’s dominant power was unquestionable. What exactly that power would look like was still very much in debate, especially with the specter of the Vietnam War only some 20 years in the past.
According to University of Southern California professor John Carlos Rowe, the “Vietnam Effect” is a phrase, “Popularized first in the late 1970s to refer to poor military and foreign policy decisions by the U.S. in the conduct of the War … [and] referred to the defeatist mentality caused by our first loss in a major military conflict.” Though the United States had engaged in successful military action following Vietnam, most notably in Granada and Panama, uncertainty of American military might was still something of a question at the time. And the U.S. government was eager to prove what its war machine was really capable of.
Those who remember the Persian Gulf War as the decisive American victory it was might forget how hyped Iraqi military prowess was before combat operations began. Sadam Hussein had amassed the world’s 4th largest military by 1991 that included a sizable number of veterans of Iraq’s decade long war with Iran. Add to this, an impressive number of tanks and surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) along with a comprehensive radar defense network and Sadam’s forces were nothing to take lightly.
To counter the dictator’s threat to Saudi Arabia, and eventually drive him from Kuwait, the United States assembled a coalition of 35 countries. Along with most of western Europe, the U.S. had support from large swaths of the Middle East, including Oman, Pakistan, and Morocco. Internationally, America’s actions were met with widespread support, even getting rare approval from the UN Security Council and China.
At home, Americans were not so convinced. A 2001 Gallup retrospective on the 10th anniversary of the war noted, “Four polls conducted between mid-August and November 1990 showed a divided public on whether the situation was worth going to war over or not. On average, 47 percent thought it was, while 43 percent thought it was not. And when Americans were first asked—in a Gallup poll conducted right before Thanksgiving 1990—about U.S. forces being used to drive the Iraqis out of Kuwait, they opposed such action by 51 percent to 37 percent.”
Part of this lack of support, especially in the minds of conservatives, was the lingering “Vietnam effect”. Rowe, the USC professor, writes, “Conservatives argued that Vietnam was a war we ‘won’ on the ‘battlefield’, but ‘lost’ in the mass media, domestic politics, and the Paris Peace Talks.” Even though American support for the war soared following the UN Security Council resolution authorizing “all necessary means” to remove Hussein from Kuwait, the U.S. government—led by Republican president George H.W. Bush—wasn’t going to take any chances.
Looking to inspire levels of patriotism unseen since World War II, a campaign was launched to collect a super majority of American support. And at the center was one of the country’s grandest annual traditions, the Super Bowl.
Before we get to that, it’s worth considering some things about national anthems in general.
The year that Claude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle wrote Chant de guerre pour l’Armée du Rhin or War Song for the Army of the Rhine, better known as La Marseillaise, the French national anthem. Formally adopted in 1870 under the third French republic, the song became a symbol of resistance to Nazi control in World War II.
Iconic national anthem performances are kind of rare
People of a country generally know their own national anthem. Knowing other countries’ anthems is obviously less common. Sports fans will be familiar with, or at least have heard, a wide variety of national anthems. Rugby fans will hear the anthems of South Africa, New Zealand, and other commonwealth countries pretty regularly. Canadian and American hockey fans sing each other’s national anthems. International obsession with soccer (global football) means fans are exposed to dozens of anthems.
Since national anthems are usually meant to be a collective exercise, iconic individual performances tend to be rare. Edith Piaf’s rendition of La Marseillaise is well known but nowhere near as iconic as the group performance of the French national anthem in the 1942 film Casablanca, a scene argued to be one of the most famous in cinema history. Incidentally, the French national anthem is the most well known and popular among non-citizens, though it’s up for debate.
America, as always, has decided to do things differently. Individual performances of the American national anthem have become a required stop on the road to greatness for famous singers and musicians. Jimi Hendrix’s instrumental version performed at Woodstock is now intimately tied to the 1960s. Lady Gaga offered a near flawless technical performance to open the 2016 Super Bowl. A search for “famous national anthem performances” returns dozens of lists dominated by Super Bowl appearances. And one performance finds its way to every list, almost always in the top spot.
The number of people that watched Super Bowl XXV on January 27, 1991. The game between the Buffalo Bills and New York Giants was a nail-biter with the Giants prevailing 20 to 19. But the game was largely overshadowed by global events and ultimately remembered for one particular on field performance. It just wasn’t by a football player.
Whitney Houston at the Super Bowl: The performance of a generation
Super Bowl XXV in Tampa, Florida was markedly different from the ones that came before. Though it wouldn’t look unfamiliar to an audience in 2022. Americans were on the lookout for a widespread terrorism threat. The Goodyear blimp, a staple of major American sports events, was grounded as an easy target. Blackhawk helicopters patrolled the stadium airspace in its place. The NFL’s commissioner arrived at the stadium wearing a flak jacket. Former Giants defensive back Everson Walls told USA Today in 2013, “[It] was the shape of things to come. The security was incredible. I think that’s the first time they checked bags and really were concerned about terrorist threats.”
There was a serious conversation over whether or not to play the game at all, though it wasn’t likely a long conversation. Bleacher Report noted in 2011 that Super Bowl XXV was “the only Super Bowl the league ever considered canceling.” Quickly the game became a showcase of American patriotism and pageantry. And corporations. Big name advertisers like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo suspended planned promotions and augmented their advertisements to thank military service members for their service.
The typical grandeur of the Super Bowl was slightly muted under layers of security but the patriotic fervor among spectators was palpable. Small American flags are more common in pictures of the game than banners or signs supporting the teams. (In fact, a tiny American flag was placed on each seat of Tampa Stadium.) Adding to the atmosphere was the fact that the color schemes for both teams feature red, white, and blue. Whitney Houston took the field to perform The Star Spangled Banner dressed in a red, white, and blue jumpsuit.
In case you haven’t heard it before:
In a fantastic overview of Houston’s performance and its importance, Danyel Smith, writing for ESPN, said, “Although the stadium hears the pre-recorded version, she sings live into a dead mic. The image of her singing is interspersed with faces of the fans, of the soldiers at attention and of the U.S. flag and flags of the wartime coalition countries blowing in the breeze. She is calmly joyful—cool, actually, and free of fear. And when she arrives at Oh, say [cymbal] does our star- [cymbal] spangled banner yet wave, she moves to lift the crowd. It’s a question. It’s always been a question. And she sings it like an answer.”
Yes, Houston had recorded her iconic Star Spangled Banner before the Super Bowl. It wasn’t performed live. However, the version heard by viewers at home was also recorded in one take, as if Houston and producers wanted the performance to be as authentic as possible in the face of a demanding veneer for national unity. To say the overall effect was achieved would be an understatement. The performance was so impressive that her record label released it as a single that promptly landed in the top 20. Her performance would be considered the gold standard of American national anthem performances some 30 years later.
More importantly, as Smith noted, this performance at this particular Super Bowl was “the start of a branding relationship between the armed forces and the NFL that has grown, vine-like, around a state of perpetual war.”
Along with a single, Artista Records also released a VHS version of her national anthem performance that you can find on eBay for as little as $5, plus shipping.
And the version I remember having as a kid? My dad said he ordered it after seeing a “What You Missed” compilation video on his flight home from Iraq. Some six weeks later, a Pepsi branded VHS arrived and became part of our family folklore. The big attraction wasn’t necessarily Whitney’s performance but the New Kids on the Block halftime show that was preempted for an ABC News update on the war.
My sister said she remembers the tape and recording over it with a very special episode of Blossom. Where it is now is anyone’s guess … like much of the rest of the ’90s.
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