Monday, February 2nd 2009, 1:59 AM
Singer Jennifer Hudson performs during the pre-game show prior to the start of Super Bowl XLIII between the Arizona Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Jennifer Hudson took a deep breath and she sang.
One hundred and ninety-five years after Francis Scott Key wrote "The Star-Spangled Banner," Hudson redefined our national anthem last night as a statement of hope, faith and - yes - even a hint of defiance.
The Oscar-winning singer returned to the public spotlight for the first time since the shocking murder of her mother, brother and niece in October.
She did it on the biggest stage in the country: Super Bowl XLIII.
By the time Hudson finished, the Dreamgirl had turned that stage into a platform to declare that she, too, will survive.
Hudson wore a blue jacket over a white suit, a look that subtly blended with the uniforms of the multiservice military color guard that played the music.
She wore an armful of bracelets and large hoop earrings. Once she was ready to come back to the public eye, clearly, she was going to give the crowd a show.
Her take on the anthem was a blend of gospel and soul. She kept the tempo deliberate, climbing easily up to the high notes for "the rocket's red glare" and then again for the climax.
In other words, she owned the song like no one has done since Whitney Houston seized it at the 1991 Super Bowl.
Houston's version of the song, which remains probably the most popular in Super Bowl history, also had an emotional overtone, coming as it did on the eve of the first Gulf War. It was eventually released as a single and reached the top 20 on the pop charts.
Hudson's drama was more personal.
Her emotional roller-coaster ride was all the more stunning because she had been riding the American dream over the previous two years.
She was on the third season of "American Idol," a contestant who was eliminated early - too early, many show fans felt.
So she picked herself up and landed a starring role as Effie, the fired singer in the 2006 movie version of the hit Broadway musical "Dreamgirls."
Effie was "the one with the voice," but Hudson showed she was more than that. She stopped the show with Effie's big number, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," and won over audiences with her acting ability.
Hollywood was so impressed, she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 2007.
In an acceptance speech that was almost as memorable as her performance in the movie, she gave profuse thanks to her family as she recounted her struggle to reach the top.
Last fall, her new album was released.
She was about to start touring to promote it when tragedy struck on Oct. 24. Her mother, Darnell Hudson Donerson, 57, her brother Jason, and little nephew Julian were murdered in her hometown of Chicago.
Ex-con William Balfour, her sister's estranged husband, was later arrested and charged for first-degree murder. He pleaded not guilty and is due back in court Feb. 23.
Hudson flew home and disappeared from public sight for weeks, issuing statements thanking her fans for their condolences and support.
She has now begun to re-emerge, filming a video for her song "If This Isn't Love" and planning appearances for the charity MusicCares.
There will be another big stage next Sunday when she sings at the Grammy Awards.
But last night was the biggest test - and the big breath she took before she began singing said she understood that.
When it was over, she exhaled.
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