11 unique (in a good way) performances of the national anthem
This week, singers and musicians from all different backgrounds stepped onto the Utah Jazz court and performed their interpretations of the national anthem
This week, singers and musicians from all different backgrounds stepped onto the Utah Jazz court and performed their interpretations of the national anthem. A number of those artists will get to perform their renditions ahead of Jazz home games at the Delta Center for the 2023-24 NBA season.
“The process of selecting national anthem performers is something we look forward to each season, as those selected help set the tone for in-arena entertainment every game night,” Andrea Williams, chief experience officer for the Utah Jazz, said in a news release, per Deseret News. “We are looking for powerful voices and compelling musicians who have the ability to fill the arena with their renditions of the national anthem.”
Jose Feliciano — 1968 World Series
When Marty McFly travels from 1985 to 1955 in “Back to the Future,” he plays the rock ’n’ roll song “Johnny B. Goode” at a school dance and leaves the crowd baffled as he starts shredding and takes things in a metal direction.
“I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet,” he tells a sea of stunned faces. “But your kids are going to love it.”
The same can be said of Jose Feliciano’s rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” A 23-year-old Feliciano performed the national anthem with a Latin jazz twist during the 1968 World Series. It marked one of the first — if not the first — time the song had been reimagined at a major sporting event, and it quickly received criticism.
It also hurt his career. Top 40 stations in the U.S. stopped playing his songs following the performance (although his rendition still managed to hit No. 50 on Billboard Hot 100, a first for the national anthem), per Smithsonian Magazine.
“The audience responded immediately with both cheers and boos,” Smithsonian Magazine reported. “Mostly angry fans jammed the switchboards at Tiger Stadium and at NBC, which was broadcasting the game. The irate callers thought Feliciano’s version of the national anthem was unpatriotic.”
But for the Puerto Rican singer, well known for his hit “Feliz Navidad,” that couldn’t have been farther from the truth.
“When I did the anthem, I did it with the understanding in my heart and mind that I did it because I’m a patriot,” Feliciano said in a 2018 interview with Smithsonian Magazine. “I was trying to be a grateful patriot. I was expressing my feelings for America when I did the anthem my way instead of just singing it with an orchestra.”
Now, Feliciano’s rendition is viewed as a watershed moment that opened the door for more creativity and interpretation when performing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
“The only thing I can say about all these versions is they wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t done it,” he told NPR. “And I’m glad that I did.”
Jimi Hendrix — 1969 Woodstock
A year after Feliciano’s performance, Jimi Hendrix closed out Woodstock on a Monday morning by letting his guitar do the singing in a virtuosic rendering of the national anthem that is now viewed as one of the most legendary performances of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
“The young men fighting and dying in Vietnam are evoked in the sounds that start eating away at the tune at about the place the words ‘rockets’ red glare’ would be sung,” Paul Grimstad wrote in a piece for The New Yorker. “Bombs, airplane engines, explosions, human cries, all seem to swirl around in the feedback and distortion.”
Grimstad wrote that Hendrix’s rendition — which clocks in at about four minutes — was “an expression of protest” at the violence of the Vietnam War, “and an affirmation of aspects of the American experiment entirely worth fighting for.”
Diana Ross — 1982 Super Bowl
Diana Ross’ performance at the 1982 Super Bowl isn’t unique from a melodic standpoint — she sang the national anthem in a straightforward manner with no embellishments. But what she did before she began to sing stands out: Looking around at the full stadium, Ross asked the audience to sing along.
The powerful voice at the center of The Supremes, Ross easily could have shown off her vocal prowess with a unique version of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” but the singer seemed more focused on creating a sense of unity, ultimately making a strong case for the argument that less is more.
Marvin Gaye — 1983 NBA All-Star Game
Hendrix aside, this is arguably the definitive version of the national anthem when it comes to unique interpretations. Marvin Gaye’s soulful take on “The Star-Spangled Banner” makes you feel like you’re at a concert — the R&B singer even has listeners clapping along near the end.
“(After the game), it was just common knowledge that whenever you talked about the anthem, everybody just pointed to it like, ‘Yeah, that was the best one that was ever done,’” former NBA star Isiah Thomas said. “Not because his techniques were good — they were — but because spiritually, in that moment, he really captured the feelings of everyone in the Forum. I’ve never been part of an anthem where everybody’s just in unison and lost control and just started moving. It was a beautiful moment.”
Up until that point, singing the national anthem was a fairly “straightforward job” that didn’t involve much artistic freedom, NPR reported. Gaye’s rendition helped continue what Feliciano started, cracking the door even wider to allow for more unique interpretations.
Neil Diamond — 1987 Super Bowl
“America” singer Neil Diamond performed the national anthem at an astonishingly brisk pace for the 1987 Super Bowl — the whole performance clocks in at well under a minute and a half, though Diamond does slow down and draw out the notes beginning at “Oh say does that star-spangled banner yet wave.”
What makes Diamond’s rendition especially impressive is that even at its fast pace, the singer’s distinct, almost theatrical, voice is still able to shine through and make this a one-of-a-kind performance.
Longest Super Bowl national anthem performance was Alicia Keys at Super Bowl 47, when she went on for 2 minutes and 36 seconds— PhillyGodfather ® Sports Bettor (@phillygodfather) February 6, 2023
The shortest Super Bowl anthem performance goes to Neil Diamond at Super Bowl 21, when he only took 1 minute and 2 seconds
Whitney Houston — 1991 Super Bowl
Whitney Houston’s rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the 1991 Super Bowl has become the gold standard — but it almost didn’t even happen. NFL senior executives thought the slower, more drawn-out version was difficult to sing along to and tried to get Houston to sing a different version, per ESPN.
But the singer wouldn’t have it.
“By slowing it down, Team Houston and the Florida Orchestra — under the direction of Chinese conductor Jahja Ling — not only increased the national anthem’s level of technical difficulty, they amplified its soul. They made it the blues,” Danyel Smith wrote for ESPN.
Now, Houston is No. 1 on just about every list of best national anthem performances, and for good reason. After her performance — which came just a few days into the Persian Gulf War — people called in and requested it on the radio. The high demand led to it being released as a single, and it would eventually peak at No. 20 on the Billboard Hot 100.
We were in the Gulf War at the time. It was an intense time for our country, Houston said in an interview about the performance, per Today. A lot of our daughters and sons were overseas fighting. I could see in the stadium, I could see the fear, the hope, the intensity, the prayers going up.
It was hope, we needed hope, you know, to bring our babies home and that’s what it was about for me. That’s what I felt when I sang that song, and the overwhelming love coming out of the stands was incredible.
Houston’s rendition was rereleased in the aftermath of 9/11. It hit No. 6 — and would mark the last top 10 hit of her career, ESPN reported.
Renee Fleming — 2014 Super Bowl
Renee Fleming’s national anthem rendition at the 2014 Super Bowl made history: In a setting dominated by pop, rock and country singers, Fleming was the first opera star to perform “The Star Spangled Banner” at the big event, NPR reported.
“Really, I just rejected it out of hand,” she said in an interview at the time, per the WQXR radio station. “I just thought, ‘Oh that’s ridiculous, you know, it must be a joke.’ Nobody’s going to ask me to sing for the Super Bowl, even the national anthem, because it’s just never been done, that anybody who was in classical music or any other genre, frankly, other than really mainstream, successful, top-selling, commercial, mainstream artists. So I was stunned when it was real!”
And it was well received. Showing off her soprano range, Fleming threw in a couple of extra high notes — and held out the word “free” for 7 seconds.
Metallica — 2017 San Fransisco Giants game
Although they play it fairly traditionally, Metallica’s James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett bring a different version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” to life with their harmonizing electric guitars. The pair have performed this rendition several times — including at the 2016 Stanley Cup Final and the 2022 NBA Finals.
Lady Gaga — 2021 presidential inauguration
There’s a 141⁄2-minute video on YouTube dedicated to breaking down the uniqueness of Lady Gaga’s national anthem rendition at President Joe Biden’s inauguration. Over the years, artists have typically performed “The Star-Spangled Banner” in either a 3⁄4 or 4/4 time signature, but Lady Gaga does both in this 2021 performance, which also pays homage to Houston’s classic rendition with some of its orchestral choices, musician Adam Neely says in his analysis of the song. This mixed meter version lends itself to more of a Broadway feel than the usual pop or R&B style.
Chris Stapleton — 2023 Super Bowl
The latest entry in Super Bowl national anthem performances, Chris Stapleton’s country-blues-infused rendition will likely go down as one of the best. The power of his raspy voice, the growl on “rockets’ red glare” and his skillful guitar accompaniment brought Philadelphia Eagles coach Nick Sirianni and Eagles lineman Jason Kelce to tears.
Stapleton recently released his live performance for streaming, and it is now available to listen to across all platforms.
Jewel — Indy 500
The criticism was swift following Jewel’s performance of the national anthem at the Indy 500 in May. Gently strumming her acoustic guitar, the singer-songwriter managed to turn “The Star-Spangled Banner” into a soft folk ballad.
She had performed this version just a few months before at the 2023 NBA All-Star Game held in Salt Lake City (Jewel was born in Payson, Utah), but for whatever reason, this time around, her creative take led to intense division among listeners — everything from “the anthem isn’t a ’90s pop ballad” to “likely one of the best versions I’ve heard,” Billboard reported.
Some listeners believed the singer “butchered” the anthem by putting her own twist on it, per Today. But there’s clearly a long history of artists bringing their own unique interpretations — some admittedly better than others — to “The Star-Spangled Banner.”