(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.)
In 2003, the US was at the precipice of war. Cable news networks frothed with fervor over talks of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and I watched as several of my college-aged friends were deployed. I personally opposed the war, but I watched many patriotic displays as they unfurled that year.
Using nationalism as a marketing tool, the Super Bowl has become a pop culture touchstone for patriotism. Every year, during the Super Bowl’s telecast, there are always featured shots of soldiers deployed overseas, standing at full salute, while a pop culture figure sings America’s national anthem. In 2003, the Dixie Chicks sang the Star-Spangled Banner at the Super Bowl. They were, at the time the undisputed queens of country music, and turned in one of my favorite all-time performances of the Star-Spangled Banner at the Super Bowl. They sung in gorgeous three-part harmony and Air Force planes flew over.
Only two months later, the US officially went to war with Iraq, and protests sprung up everywhere. Shortly thereafter, the Dixie Chicks’ lead singer, Natalie Maines, told fans at a concert that she was ashamed that president George W. Bush was from Texas. The band experienced an unprecedented fall from grace in the country music world, with stations almost immediately pulling their music from rotation. Maines and her bandmates did not back down, however, and continued to speak to any news outlet that would listen about their (widely shared) belief that the US should not be going alone into war with Iraq.
For their outspoken beliefs, the Grammy-winning trio paid dearly. But they were not the first mainstream country singers who were outspoken about the fact that the US can do better. And they were not the first snubbed by the country music established for that same reason. Furthermore, they were not the first country performers of the national anthem at the Super Bowl to feel that way.
The year was 1993. Americans got their celebrity news mostly from print publications, magazine shows, and cable networks. Although many alternative rock & hip-hop artists were on the frontline for social causes, both in their music and their videos, country artists were not expected to double as activists.
Nowadays, thanks to social media networks such as Twitter & Instagram, we have a tremendous amount of insight into what all of our favorite celebrities think & how they vote. (Country star Shania Twain learned that to her great detriment in 2018.) But in 1993, it seems pop culture as a whole was not particularly concerned about the social and political beliefs of most celebrities at that time. But there was one particular country musician at the time who took his fight for social change very seriously — Garth Brooks.
Brooks was not considered “cool” in any manner at the time, particularly among elite critical circles. He was never mentioned in the year-end Pazz & Jop poll. All of this was true despite being a Grammy-winning, multi-platinum, stadium selling-out force the likes of which mainstream country music had never 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 by the chosen singer 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, rarely seen without a cowboy hat, was also 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 blogs 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, featured 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 something shown on CNN at the time. That said, it certainly broke the mold for mainstream country music videos, even more than 20 years on. Full disclosure: I grew up on late 80s and early 90s country, and CMT was a mainstay in my childhood home. I had higher-than-average knowledge of many country music videos at the time, especially for a 10-year-old. Rather than write about how unusual I found the video for "We Shall Be Free", 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 and in particular, 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 & bring about greater awareness. 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.)
The content of the video astound me in part because despite the amount of cable television I consumed in my tween years, I don’t remember this video at all. That’s 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 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 from 90s country music? It’s one of those bizarre pop music facts on par with finding out that John Denver testified on behalf of 2 Live Crew in front of the Federal Government.
In subsequent 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.)
It may seem strange to some that Garth Brooks would have political beliefs in common with Beyonce or even Colin Kaepernick, but he went under the radar in joining their ranks regarding Super Bowl & football controversy. 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, again sticking to his beliefs, cancelling a pre-Thanksgiving appearance on The Tonight Show out of respect for protesters in Ferguson, Missouri after the lack of indictment for police officer who murdered Michael Brown earlier that year.
And we can trace back that social awareness to the early 90s, even within a genre where political & social commentary often was met with outright banishment.
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.
Addendum: In 2018, in my fourth year of going over the Star-Spangled Banner unit in my Chorus classes & having discussed this particular performance of Garth Brooks for at least two years prior, several of my students (who had otherwise zero interest in country music) approached me one day, told me that they loved “We Shall Be Free”, and requested to perform it for an audience. They performed it twice that spring, backed by our rock band students.
*Edited significantly for tone, some new information, additional intro material, and an addendum on February 3rd, 2019.