National anthem performers are like referees.
If they do their job correctly, we’ll completely forget about their performance in a matter of hours. But if they mess up, we’ll discuss and replay their error for years.
Sure, there are exceptions. We remember Marvin Gaye at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game, and we remember when then Portland Trailblazers coach Maurice Cheeks recorded one of the most remarkable assists of his career.
But the performances that get the most attention—the ones we’ll never be able to erase from our brains—are the ones that go bad.
We’ll never forget Christina Aguilera singing “What so proudly we watched at the twilight’s last gleaming” instead of “O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming,” just like we’ll never forget Roseanne Barr or Carl Lewis, and just like you’ll never forget the high school trumpet player whose nerves, lips, and lungs wouldn’t allow him to complete the anthem before a state tournament basketball game.
Most everyone with a blog or a Twitter account had something to say about Steven Tyler’s shaky rendition of the anthem before the AFC Championship Game, but the Internet barely noticed Kristin Chenoweth’s near-perfect anthem before the NFC Championship Game.
While some poor renditions of the national anthem are inexcusable, others are inevitable. “The Star Spangled Banner” is a tricky piece of music. Even good singers—and horn players—struggle with it. Sing through the national anthem right now. Chances are you got stuck at either “last gleaming” (too low) or “of the free” (too high). Or maybe, without meaning to, you switched keys mid-song so that you’d be able to hit all the notes.
Given the degree of difficulty, we should celebrate those performers who deliver impeccable renditions of “The Star Spangled Banner”: performers who hit all the notes cleanly, who stay in key, who enunciate the lyrics, who perform the song with their unique style and voice while remaining faithful to Francis Scott Key’s lyrics and John Stafford Smith’s melody.
With that in mind I’ve compiled 5 great Super Bowl performances of “The Star Spangled Banner” that we should remember.
(Yesterday Jerod previewed this year’s anthem, which will be performed by Kelly Clarkson.)
Before I continue, I should tell you now that I didn’t include Whitney Houston’s anthem from Super Bowl XXV. Whitney’s version of the anthem, which reached the top twenty on the singles charts in 1991, has long been considered the Jahangir Khan of Super Bowl national anthems, but it came from a recording studio. Whitney sang the song live, but she sang into a dead microphone while a recording she had made played over the P.A.
I have no problem with Whitney Houston singing along to a pre-recorded track. A zillion things can go wrong with a live performance in front of tens of millions of television viewers.
Super Bowl XXV came ten days after the Operation Desert Storm phase of the Gulf War began. The anthem needed to be perfect. Whitney’s was. And Whitney Houston is not the only person to have lip-synced “The Star Spangled Banner” before the Super Bowl. Jennifer Hudson mimicked her recording of the anthem before Super Bowl XLIII. For all we know, several other performers have done likewise.
Ever since Super Bowl XXVII, when anthem-singer Garth Brooks threatened to walk out unless NBC played his new music video, the NFL has required performers to submit a recording of the anthem just in case. So every performer has the option of lip-syncing.
For this article, I’m sticking with live performances. Since we are so quick to chastise live performances gone bad, I would like to lift up performers who sang or played the anthem live to a global television audience and nailed it. (From what I can gather, all the anthems below were live, but I wouldn’t be shocked to learn that some of them weren’t. I’m just going with the best evidence I have.)
Neil Diamond, Super Bowl XXI
I may have included this one because I’m incapable of saying an unkind word about Neil Diamond.
Diamond took some liberties with the rhythm and melody and made “The Star Spangled Banner” a Neil Diamond song. (You can see John Elway struggling to sing along at 0:53.) But nothing about his performance was showy or excessive. He didn’t let the tempo drag, and he didn’t linger on any of the high notes.
Neil gave Bill Parcells a pat on the back as he jogged off the field (1:34). I can’t quite make out Parcells’s response. I think he said, “All right.” Make of that what you will.
Billy Joel, Super Bowl XLI
I’ve never been a Billy Joel fan. (I consider “My Life” a guilty pleasure.) But I like what he did with the national anthem before Super Bowl XLI.
He is the sole performer on this list who accompanied himself, and his simple piano arrangement was the perfect complement to his no-frills vocals.
I give him bonus points for playing and singing in the rain. Nice job, Billy.
Dixie Chicks, Super Bowl XXXVII
My knowledge of the Dixie Chicks’ music is limited to the time one of my sister’s college friends had me listen to that “Earl had to die” song and to this rendition of the national anthem.
This may be the cleanest rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” I’ve ever heard, and it’s among the most elegant.
Beyoncé Knowles, Super Bowl XXXVIII
Purists may object to some of Beyoncé’s embellishments, particularly toward the end of the song. But I’m willing to let them slide because everything else about this performance is absolutely stunning.
Houston hosted Super Bowl XXXVIII. It was the city’s first Super Bowl since Super Bowl VIII in 1974. (Charley Pride sang the anthem that year.) Beyoncé was born and raised in Houston. She perfected her craft at St. John’s United Methodist Church downtown. I’m of the belief that, whenever possible, performers at major sporting events should have some connection to the host city.
Then again, not every city has a Beyoncé.
(Speaking of performers who were native to the host city, from what I can tell, Wynton Marsalis’s anthem from Super Bowl XX in New Orleans exists nowhere on the Internet. If you know where I can find it, let me know in the comments.)
Academy Choirs, Super Bowl XXXIX
During halftime of Super Bowl XXXVIII, toward the end of “Rock Your Body,” Justin Timberlake gave the world a glimpse of Janet Jackson’s right breast. The following year, after the deluge of letters from angry parents had subsided, the NFL went out of its way to make sure that nothing about the Super Bowl broadcast would run afoul of the FCC.
So they hired Paul McCartney to do the halftime show. (He had a 3/1 Beatles-to-Wings ratio.) And they enlisted the combined choirs of the United States Service Academies, along with the U.S. Army Herald Trumpets, to perform “The Star Spangled Banner.”
They chose wisely.
If it were up to me, national anthem performers would always be ensembles instead of soloists. As I mentioned earlier, “The Star Spangled Banner” is a tricky song for an individual to sing or play. With a band or choir, different players, singers, or sections can carry different parts of the song. Notice below how the men carry the melody at the beginning of the anthem, and the women take over toward the end.
Even by ensemble standards, the Academy Choirs did an extraordinary job. Just about everything about this performance is perfect.
What another Super Bowl National Anthems do you particularly like that are not included here? Please comment below with links to the video.