(This entry is part of a weeklong series of study material about the United States National Anthem and how it is used in a popular context -- actually, the most popular context, since the Super Bowl is consistently the most widely watched TV event in American households. Considering the protest and controversy over the National Anthem over the past year and the current state of our political discourse, this seems like an especially pertinent topic in music education.
Turns out it was in 1993, as well.)
The year was 1993. The U.S. got its celebrity news mostly from print publications, magazine shows, and cable networks. The term "Woke Bae" (slang for a very attractive, very socially conscious celebrity, usually male) was over two decades away from entering the pop lexicon. Currently reigning "Wokest Bae" Jesse Williams was only 12 years old. Contenders for the "Wokest Bae" of that year included Pedro Zamora, whose heart-wrenching battle with AIDS played out on MTV's The Real World, Tom Hanks & Denzel Washington for their work in the drama Philadelphia in which Hanks played a man fighting AIDS and discriminatory legal battles, and possibly the members of Duran Duran, whose "Ordinary World" played over many news montages of Eastern European wars that year.
Due mostly to a lack of Twitter, it seems pop culture was not particularly worried about the social and political beliefs of celebrities at that time. But looking back, I would nominate another pop superstar for the "Wokest Bae" of 1993: Garth Brooks.
He was not considered cool in any manner at the time, although he was a Grammy-winning, multi-platinum force the likes of which mainstream country music had rarely seen. As a result of his success & popularity, he was asked to perform the Star-Spangled Banner for the 1993 Super Bowl. And as a result of his conduct, guided by his beliefs, in the lead-up to the game, television producers would forever record a performance of the Anthem prior to the game, just in case.
How did all of this come about? As it turns out, while "I Got Friends in Low Places" was quickly becoming an anthem for line-dancing, whiskey drinking, working class party animals, Brooks, who was rarely seen without a cowboy hat, was a firm believer in justice, equality, and was an unexpected early 90s version of the socially conscious stars we hear so much about these days. Having released his "most ambitious and personal album", The Chase in September of 1992, he had hoped to use his massive Super Bowl platform for the premiere of the video of his forthcoming single, "We Shall Be Free".
The story is most widely recorded by country music blog and former NFL executive director Don Weiss in his 2003 book. According to Weiss, just prior to Brooks's performance of the National Anthem, NBC deemed the content of the "We Shall Be Free" video inappropriate for the Super Bowl audience. Brooks exited the stadium shortly thereafter, 45 minutes prior to the start of the game. Unlike previous years' performances (including Whitney Houston's legendary performance in 1992), Brooks had refused to pre-tape his rendition of the anthem. Producers and network executives, left scrambling, found Jon Bon Jovi in the audience for the game (which, for those wondering, was played by the Buffalo Bills and the Dallas Cowboys) and placed him in the Star-Spangled bullpen. However, producers convinced Brooks to perform with deaf actress Marlee Matlin signing alongside him.
The "We Shall Be Free" video, largely inspired by Brooks's reaction to the L.A. Riots in 1992, features a good deal of violence, including raw footage from news coverage of the riots. Although it was unexpected, especially in a country music video in 1993, the footage was not much more violent than any footage shown on CNN at the time. That said, it certainly breaks the mold for mainstream country music videos, even more than 20 years on. Rather than write about how badly the video for "We Shall Be Free" makes my brain hurt, I'll let you judge its contents.
CONTENT NOTE: There are images containing blood, violence, and war scenes in this video, along with Jay Leno telling us to all get along. It also shows, unflinchingly, a variety of black people suffering, from L.A. to Somalia, and it does seem that Brooks's intent was to shock his largely white audience. Proceed with care, and if you do show the video to your students, you may want to warn them ahead of time about some of the imagery.
(If you cannot see it here, you can click through to it here. I highly recommend watching it for context.)
On a personal note, I grew up largely on country music. I'm not sure how my mother, who attended college in upstate New York and adored Stevie Wonder came to love country, but she did, and country music was the major genre of my pre-teen years. I also grew up in a town where agriculture & NASCAR were prominent, so even after I all but abandoned country music in favor of Green Day & The Smashing Pumpkins, I still was exposed to a good deal of it. Even armed with that knowledge, this content of this video does not shock as much as it astounds me.
It astounds me in part because not a single cable music channel aired it, much less discussed it at the time. Apparently, it shocked the CMT programmers and the video was banned from their network, even though Brooks was the biggest country music star at the time by several degrees of magnitude. In an age where music videos made and broke many acts, this ban may have resulted in diminished sales for The Chase (which also featured a song with a clear anti-sexual assault message) as well as lowered chart position for "We Shall Be Free" as a single. In subsequent years, however, "We Shall Be Free" was performed on Muppets Tonight, used in gay pride marches, for an Inaugural Concert for President Barack Obama, and in videos created by the Occupy Wall Street movement. Not where you'd expect to hear 90s country music, right? This chain of events reads to me like musical bizarro world on the level of finding out that John Denver testified on behalf of 2 Live Crew in front of the Federal Government.
In the following years, producers insisted that a performance of the Anthem be pre-recorded prior to the Super Bowl. Controversy has ensued as major live events since then have featured pre-recorded singing, but as any performer knows, high stakes live performances as such are extraordinarily risky. (Showrunners for Super Bowl 40 would have done better to use Christina Auguilera’s pre-recorded version, rather than her disastrous live butchering of the National Anthem.)
So yes, before Beyonce got folks in formation during halftime, causing a fuss among football fans fearing mass protests, before Colin Kaepernick knelt and caused a (in some cases literal) firestorm, the original modern National Anthem protest came from none other than Garth Brooks. The country superstar would go on to continued fame and legendary status, even after sales of his alter ego rock album stumbled. He would show up again in 2014, woke as ever, cancelling a pre-Thanksgiving appearance on The Tonight Show out of respect for protesters in Ferguson, Missouri after the lack of indictment for officer Darren Wilson. For that, we certainly can post-date him as one of the “wokest baes” of 1993.
And remind our students that the issues we're facing in our country today are not new, nor were they even temporarily solved in the 1990s.