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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:

  • More interviews with Here & Now pop culture critic Renee Graham
  • Philip Bailey interviewed on Here & Now in 2009:

Guest:

  • Renee Graham, Here & Now pop culture critic.

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