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Friday, February 1, 2013

National Anthem As ‘Holy Grail Or Third Rail’

Whitney Houston, left, sings the national anthem at the 1991 Super Bowl. Christina Aguilera, right, sings the national anthem at the 2011 Super Bowl. (AP)

Whitney Houston, left, sings the national anthem at the 1991 Super Bowl. Christina Aguilera, right, sings the national anthem at the 2011 Super Bowl. (AP)

At the Super Bowl this Sunday, Alicia Keys is slated to sing the national anthem.

It’s a job that is much-coveted, but also much-satirized. Consider, for example, Maya Rudolph’s famous skit on “Saturday Night Live.” (See video)

Here & Now pop culture critic Renee Graham says singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Super Bowl “is like hosting the Oscars for actors and comedians. It’s one of the stations of the cross if you’re a performer – you have to do it, it’s a big deal.”

“All they’re thinking of is ‘land of the free, land of the free’ and meantime they’re screwing up the rockets, they’re messing up the ramparts…”
– Renee Graham

But with thousands of spectators, as well as millions watching on television, there is a huge amount of pressure “and even seasoned performers can come undone,” Graham said.

Pop singer Christina Aguilera was excoriated for messing up some lyrics while performing the anthem at the 2011 Super Bowl. (See video)

“The sad thing is Christina Aguilera has a wonderful voice. But it almost doesn’t even matter in that moment once you start screwing up. It’s either the Holy Grail or the third rail,” Graham said.

The anthem is notoriously challenging. There’s the high note in the phrase “the land of the free,” and getting caught up in the thought of that one note can land performers in trouble.

“All they’re thinking of is ‘land of the free, land of the free’ and meantime they’re screwing up the rockets, they’re messing up the ramparts, everything is just, you know, falling apart,” she said.

The secret of a good national anthem performance is “you have to be in the moment, but don’t become bigger than the moment, which I think becomes a problem for a lot of performers. They see this as a great moment for them and they kind of forget what they’re doing up there,” Graham said.

She calls Whitney Houston’s performance at the 1991 Super Bowl the “gold standard.”

Here are some other famous and infamous renditions:

The Star-Spangled Banner lyrics:

O say can you see by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

See also:


  • Renee Graham, Here & Now pop culture critic.

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  • Maggie

    Very interesting piece, thank you H&N.  I agree, WH’s version the best so far, I also liked Jose Feliciano’s verision.  Was Whitney Houston lip singing?

  • Eileen

    I am not a big fan of our national anthem.  It’s long, difficult to sing, grammatically impractical and a song about war.  However, I greatly enjoyed your story on the singing of the anthem and how it’s been sung well (and less well).  Thanks for grabbing my attention and serenading me!

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/436PVYQCH5P23MAODJMDC632OA nj

      I agree. The melody is wrong for a song that should be sung communally, and the words are wrong for a country that hasn’t had a serious threat to our sovereignty in living memory.  “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” would be a much better candidate. 

  • TW

    We need to remember that an anthem is intended to be a communal experience with all people joining in and lifting their voices together. When it becomes merely a performance it loses the sense of being a shared and unifying experience.

  • JDP3

    Too many performers take their interpretation of the National Anthem too far into their own genre.  Far too much “drama” is added by many performers with extra notes and long, slow singing.  Today was the first time I heard  Marvin Gaye’s and Steven Tyler’s performances and both were expressions of each artist’s own style.  But as was mentioned in the broadcast, Whitney Houston’s version, which makes me tear up every time, the “gold standard”, at least of sung versions.  But for my money, the best, most inspiring rendition is played by the Marine Corps Band.  Those two are all that’s needed.

  • Garbie Dukes

    Uh….at the top of this article, you have Alicia Keys slated to sing this Sunday – did Beyonce drop out?

    • pemarkley

      beyonce did inaugural.  Alicia Keyes is doing super bowl.

  • http://www.facebook.com/wendylwilliamsboston Wendy Langlois Williams

    Whitney – 1991…. chills.  Every. Single. Time.

  • pemarkley

    I just listened to this piece on NPR. Most of the versions made my ears bleed and had me screaming at the car radio. It is our NATIONAL anthem. It is (among other things) a song about war and our country’s enduring strength in times of tur…moil. I hate it when singers “reinterpret” it. I’m talking to you Marvin Gay and Christina Aguilera. It is not about you. Rather, YOU should be HONORED that we asked you to sing it. Stop messing with it. Everyone should do it just like Whitney in 1991. That is it. Good luck Alicia Keys. Don’t screw it up.

  • loonytick

    When will we stop repeating the myth that the anthem is so very, very challenging? The average high school choir soprano can handle the melody just fine. Many, in fact, are required to do just that.

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/436PVYQCH5P23MAODJMDC632OA nj

      There’s hitting the pitches in the written rhythm, and then there’s singing. Any high school choir soprano or mezzo can do the former. It’s the latter that takes greater musical sensibility and training. 

  • Debbie

    Thanks for this segment which has been an irksome issue for me. All these singers are noted talents in their own genre- but when you are afforded the honor to sing the national anthem at a national event please sing it as written. It is not the forum for self indulgent free forming of this national classic. Show respect for the song as it is written and for your audience, and you will be applauded for it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/bucksommerkamp Buck Sommerkamp

    I *loved* this segment. Truly a driveway moment for which NPR programs are so famous. I couldn’t get back to my desk at work until I heard the end of the story (and I agree with you, Whitney Houston’s version makes me cry like a baby EVERY TIME). Thanks for a really fascinating piece.

  • Warren Criswell

    But you didn’t play or mention the greatest of all: Hendrix at Woodstock!

  • Donna Lilborn

    I have spent many an hour listening to various forms of the star spangled banner. While I agree that this song is supposed to be an expression of communal pride, and not of the singer’s talent, I also think there is a question of how various sub-groups of our nation address the question of singing with respect and pride. For example, take this marvelous performance  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZLGl805q0sQ  . This group is singing this song in the same way that they praise their Lord. What better expression of respect do you want? Of course, it is also true that the soloist is singing in a community context, not as a star entertainer.
    This goes to the questions we have been asking ourselves, as a country, for some time: who says what is normal, what is “plain”, what is “appropriate”. I go with heartfelt.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Georgia-Al/100003214211611 Georgia Al

    Hanson’s rendition of the National Anthem is beautiful…They have sung it several times and they nail it…Very simple, sincere and just good harmonies…

    Here is the band Hanson’s performance of the National Anthem at the NBA OKC Thunder basketball game: 

    HANSON – National Anthem NBA

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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