July 3, 2014
If past July 4th celebrations are any indication, we'll be hearing the National Anthem a lot over the next few days and what red, white and blue-blooded American patriot can't appreciate that?
Sadly, we won't hear it played before any World Cup Soccer games until 2018 (that is, if we qualify), but there are countless baseball games and firework events -- or, baseball games with fireworks -- and numerous other sporting events scheduled between now and Monday (7/7) where tradition dictates somebody sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" before the contest gets underway.
Hearing the anthem successfully belted out moments before a highly anticipated sporting event always gives me goose bumps, especially when I'm in a stadium. Going back to my days as a high school football player, the "Star-Spangled Banner" was the ultimate, final, emotional crescendo that always got me stoked up enough to wanna go to war and knock the crap out of somebody the moment the game started.
At the same time ... and I don't think I'm alone here ... listening to the anthem makes me nervous. I'm always hoping -- praying, actually -- whoever's singing it live doesn't screw it up. That's because we've all heard and or seen it happen; it's just the most awful feeling. Ever.
There have been many famously botched anthems: Christina Aguilera at the 2011 Super Bowl; Michael Bolton, somewhere in 2003 and Aerosmith's Steven Tyler more than once! But at least they were earnest in their attempts and seemed to be putting their backs into it, unlike Rosanne Barr, who read the room wrong (or, should I say, an entire baseball stadium) in 1990 when she deliberately tortured all of America with simply the most awful rendition. Ever.
The worst version I personally ever witnessed happened during an industry event in 1994, on an aircraft carrier in San Diego, the flight deck packed with Navy crewmembers and military muckety-mucks in full-dress, standing in formation.
A now-forgotten group that shall go unnamed, stood onstage defiantly ignoring a teleprompter not 20 feet away -- which conveniently scrolled the words in large, bold print. Instead, they chose to wing it. Things went sideways quickly, which I guess is bad enough when you're doing the anthem solo, but this was a chain-reaction crash of epic proportions. They had to stop singing -- and giggling, I might add -- in front of all those military personnel and begin again.
Even as a mere spectator to this musical carnage, I wanted to hurl myself overboard into the raging sea.
Having access to artists over the years, I've often asked them about singing the anthem. Some like it, others ... um, not so much. The ones willing to perform it always shared with me a similar strategy when tackling this prickly tune.
"Start low," they have advised. Because apparently if you start too high, there's no place to go but higher and eventually, your head explodes.
That jives with information about the technical aspect of "The Star-Spangled Banner" which I came across in a blog published by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
In it, Kenneth Slowik, the Director of the Smithsonian Chamber Music Society said, "It has a lot to do with the range. It's a very wide range. Basically, the notes are very high." Slowik then goes on to explain in further technical detail why the song seems challenging for any singer, of any range. "It's traditionally sung in Bb major because going higher than that makes it hard for the altos and basses singing to get to the high note, and going lower makes it hard for the tenors and sopranos to manage."
In other words, we're all screwed.
When I was with Arista working Jerrod Niemann, I often had to pass along a radio station's request to sing the Anthem; he always said he'd rather not. Now, Jerrod loves the USA twice as much as the next bandwagon-jumping U.S. soccer fan, but he had his reasons.
"Well, a lot of people don't want to sing it because they say it's rangy or difficult," Niemann explained. He went on to tell me that on his first-ever #1 single, "Lover, Lover," for example, "The range goes from the highest possible note I could hit, to the lowest, so it's actually more challenging than the anthem in that respect." Tell that to Kenneth Slowik.
But here's the thing. "For most people the difficulty is that, it's not about the artist, it's about our country," continued Niemann. "You do want to a good job. And when you sing it and do a good job, everybody forgets about you. But if you screw it up, everyone is pointing and laughing and watching YouTube for a few days. Most singers would tell you more than being hard, you don't want to mess it up. So I like hearing it, but not performing it."
But of course, when done right, as it has been on so many more occasions that not, the National Anthem is a beautiful, inspiring, patriotic song provoking spontaneous sing-alongs no matter the size of the crowd, or their collective vocal talents. I can't carry a tune to save my life, but I'll gladly chime in with a stadium-sized crowd, knowing I'm insulated by 50,000 other mostly bad singers.
Speaking of anthems done right, I sat and thought about ones I have seen in person or heard a lot and came up with my top 10. As always, I welcome your comments. Include in the comments section below or hit me on e-mail here.
Here's that list of my all-time favorite renditions of our National Anthem:
- Kelly Clarkson - Thanksgiving Day, 2006. Dallas Cowboys Game. Kelly can belt out any song. Especially effective on the "Star-Spangled Banner."
- Faith Hill - 2000 Super Bowl. This immediately became a go-to for Country stations that play the Anthem every day ... and many do.
- Lee Ann Womack. Dodger Stadium, circa 2003. While at KZLA, we partnered with the Dodgers to provide Anthem singers. This was not recorded, but I stood behind home plate, field level while she sang the living SH#$@ out of it near the pitcher's mound, which made perfect sense, because Lee Ann was pitch-perfect. What else is new?
- Leanne Rimes. No idea where we got but again, while at KZLA, we had her a cappella version, which sounded like it was done in a studio but wow. Just wow. That girl can sing.
- Ricochet. Remember "Daddy's Money," their only hit? Their perfect harmonized version of the anthem was a staple on Country stations well past their existence as a group. It's fantastic.
- Carrie Underwood. 2006, Seattle's Quest Field. Pretty much any time she sings "The Star-Spangled Banner" it's perfect. Or, any other song for that matter. This was soon after she won "Idol" and her star was rising, so it was kind of a coming-out party. An "oh wow" moment.
- The Dixie Chicks. 2003 Super Bowl. Beautiful, three-part harmony that was so classy, enormously patriotic-sounding and absolutely perfect. The final note was an especially nice touch. Ironically, it was just two months later that Natalie made the famous comments about President Bush that made so many question her love of country.
- Glen Campbell. Dodgers-Angels Freeway Series pre-season game. Anaheim Stadium, in the mid-'90s, I believe. Campbell walked onto the field wearing an Angels jacket, headphones (so as not to hear his voice delayed) and a guitar. It was non-traditional, but classy, tasteful and no less inspirational than the classic arrangement.
- Marvin Gaye. 1983 NBA All-Star Game, Fabulous Forum, Los Angeles. A stunning, soulful, way-off-the-reservation version where he was accompanied only by a drum machine. He's probably the only person who could have pulled that off. Incredible.
- Whitney Houston. 1991 Super Bowl. Simply the best version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" of all time. That is all.