Let’s start this ranking of the worst Super Bowl national anthem performances by establishing that “The Star-Spangled Banner” is a difficult song to sing. It goes from the lowest lows to the highest highs, and if you can keep that “loose” finish for as long as it takes, you’re a better singer than most. Plus, you perform in front of 100 million people, which can piss off even the best troubadour. So we admire the courage it takes to even attempt the song.
That said… if we judge football players for making big mistakes on the biggest stage, well, we can judge hymn singers by the same standard as well. Thankfully, no singer (yet) has plumbed the depths of Carl Lewis’s atonal rendition before an NBA game or Roseanne Barr’s atrocity before a baseball game. However, while anyone who can sing the anthem before the world is phenomenally talented, these brilliant singers picked a bad day to have a bad day…
6.N/A, Super Bowl XI: No hymn is a bad hymn. For whatever reason, the NFL decided in 1977 not to have a national anthem, instead opting for singer Vikki Carr to perform “America the Beautiful”. To this day – and, likely, forever – it is the only Super Bowl to not feature a pregame national anthem.
5. Alicia Keys, Super Bowl XLVII: Again, bearing in mind the talent and courage it takes to not only sing the anthem in front of millions of people, but also to accompany you on the piano… this wasn’t a bad anthem, per se, it was just… Like this. .. sloooooow. Arriving at 2:32 – and much longer if you include the piano flourishes at the beginning and end – this made the anthem’s “over” punters happy, but everyone else was ready to get on with the game.
4. Aretha Franklin, Aaron Neville, Dr. John, Super Bowl XL: Again: this is not a criticism of the Queen, or Neville, or the good doctor. This hymn is a fault not of the performers, but of the arrangement. Aaron Neville could sing your tax return and make it sound sexy and romantic; Aretha Franklin could sing your shopping list and make it sound transcendent and inspiring. But stringing the two together back-to-back, adding a curiously understated Dr. John to the mix, and then slathering a gospel choir on top didn’t work. Too much of a good thing isn’t always a good thing.
3. Cheryl Ladd, Super Bowl XIV: The NFL has mixed politics and sports since 1980, when Ladd, one of the most famous television stars of the time, dedicated the anthem to the hostages then held in Iran. Maybe the “Charlie’s Angels” star lip-synched her, or maybe it’s just the old video of the day, but this rendition screams “cruise ship lounge.” (Aside: Pat Summerall expressed disbelief at the size of the flag — which was only about 25 yards wide, a toy compared to today’s 100-yard-wide behemoths. Those were the days.)
2. Charley Pride, Super Bowl VIII: On the very first play of Super Bowl XLVIII, an errant snap came off Peyton Manning’s helmet and went into the end zone, leading to a safety and Seattle’s eventual blowout. This was the equivalent of the national anthem, with country legend Charley Pride literally missing the first words of the song. He recovered quite well, but “remembering all the words” is the basis for performing a hymn.
1. Christina Aguilera, Super Bowl XLV: Christina Aguilera is a national treasure, possessing all the skill and presence you could wish for in a singer of her greatness. Yet even the best can make mistakes, as she did when she somehow turned “On the ramparts we watched” into “What we washed so proudly.” It wasn’t a bad save at the time, given the stakes and circumstances, but the fumble plummeted: she stormed through the rest of the song and stumbled in the big “free” and “brave” finale. It’s all right, Xtina; any of us would do it much worse than you.
Chris Stapleton is expected to sing the national anthem this year. Let’s hope it does absolutely nothing to warrant an addition to this list.