She’s come up a couple times in my posts, so it’s no secret that Whitney Houston is my favorite vocalist. I have long lists of favorites in almost every music genre, but my kids will tell you how I’ll lecture endlessly anytime someone challenges me on whether she is the greatest vocalist of my lifetime.
And, as a Whitney fan, I was pretty sure I was going to spend the rest of my days never being quite as moved by “The Star Spangled Banner” as I was when she sang it at the Super Bowl in 1991. Her performance was this exceptional moment that captured the spirit of who we are as Americans in each heartfelt note. The full range of the notes is as diverse as our country.
Upon rerelease after September 11, 2001, Houston became the first musical act to take the anthem to the top 10 and even platinum. The proceeds went to first responders and families of victims. As perfect as her voice is in this performance, it is the power and the courage behind the perfection that still gives me goosebumps all these years later.
So I almost got whiplash when my ears perked up to hear G. Star Swain’s version on NPR Saturday morning. Goosebumps again almost 25 years later. Almost as polished as Whitney’s, and just as powerful and courageous and exceptional.
Swain was coaxed by a family member to sing the anthem a cappella while visiting the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. I can’t imagine the kind of guts it took to do what she did, let alone do it so well, so movingly, so powerfully. That’s brave.
Which brings me to my Fourth of July thought — as I have listened to Whitney’s version over the years and Swain’s version a couple times now, it’s the way these ladies played the word “brave” that gets me every time. It starts with “the land of the free,” but the real power of their talent, of the song, of our country is heard in the what they did with the word “brave.”
Swain’s version, in particular, sounded like a reminder to me. The way she played out the word made me think, that’s what’s wrong with our public discourse, our politics, and the direction of our country. We’ve forgotten we are the home of the brave.
Too many of our thoughts and perspectives and actions are coming from a place of fear. Trump’s built an entire candidacy around fear. Walls, religious bans, race delineations as pertaining to professional performance — that’s fear talking.
Both Trump and Clinton are afraid to admit they have no right to speak to issues of income disparity and poverty and reigning in Wall Street from their side of the imbalanced equation. Both parties are afraid to admit this presidential election cycle rings like the death knell for the hearts of their respective parties. And we’re all afraid to admit that no matter who wins, most of us are going to wake up on November 9 feeling like we have some kind of democracy hangover or something.
(Okay I just actually tried to imagine what November 9 is going to feel like, and a hangover is more appealing …)
Gun control advocates are afraid to admit that it’s okay to own guns, and extreme gun rights advocates are afraid that any discussion about reasonable gun control means the end of the Second Amendment. Neither fear is reasonable or rational. Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and former Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger suddenly look like standard-bearers for the center on gun policy.
Further we should all be afraid to admit we don’t remember a law being passed that established that the National Rifle Association, a nonprofit representing 5 million people, would be in charge of all gun policy in America because there wasn’t one, yet they are. How did that happen?
The more I thought about it, the more I realized too much of our discourse is fear talking. Fear that things are changing; fear that some recent changes haven’t worked out so well for some of us. Fears that power and control balances need to change for our country and our world to survive.
I think we’re even afraid to admit we have to work together, whether we like it or not, in order to continue being this land of the free.
It’s too bad we don’t have a candidate who could lead in a way that reminds us all to set aside our fears and come together from a place of collective courage — a candidate who, like these ladies, commands us to remember that we are the home of the brave.