Granted, in terms of pop-hit potential, "The Star-Spangled Banner" ranks just behind the theme from Doogie Howser. Dutifully performed at sporting events since World War II, the venerable larynx-stretching anthem had become, for some jaded—and. dare we say, suspiciously unpatriotic?—fans, simply the final delay before the first pitch, play or punch. At least, that's how it seemed until Whitney Houston stepped to the mike moments before Super Bowl XXV in Tampa.

When Houston, 27, was first invited to perform the anthem, the game was a year away and most Americans didn't know a Scud from a smart bomb or Peter Arnett from an A-10 Warthog. In mid-January of this year, she recorded the vocal track in L.A. and the Florida Orchestra recorded the music in Tampa (prerecording is a common Super Bowl practice in case of technical glitches on game day). Then on Jan. 27—10 days into the gulf air war—she took the field before 73,813 fans and a TV audience of 115 million. Afterward "I went back up in the sky booth and watched the game." says Houston. "It wasn't until a day or two later that I realized the whole country was in an uproar."

Stirred by her rousing, gospel-inspired performance, Houston's version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" quickly became the fastest-selling single ever on Arista Records. Within weeks, sales of video tapes, CDs and audio cassettes of her performance raised more than $500,000 for the American Red Cross Gulf Crisis Fund.

"I think it was a time when Americans needed to believe in our country." Houston says now. "I remember standing there and looking at all those people, and it was like I could see in their faces the hopes and prayers and fears of the entire country."