The National Anthem. The Star-Spangled Banner. Over the past several years, its performance before American football games and other public events has become controversial. But long before players started taking a knee in protest, the selection of National Anthem performers has always sent a message to American culture. Sometimes, that message is not always well received -- ask the extremely talented Mexican-American teenager Sebastien De La Cruz about that. But make no mistake: singers & performers of The Star-Spangled Banner are selected to make a statement.
When an event associated with national identity invites a musician to perform the National Anthem, the organizers of the event send a message about what type of music that nation & that culture values. In this case, I'm talking about the Super Bowl. I am fascinated by the way that the NFL has so successfully taken up the face of American patriotism. Prior to the Super Bowl (a term that has become synonymous in American culture with the biggest event imaginable), a featured performer is selected to interpret the Star-Spangled Banner, and viewers at home are shown images of soldiers overseas standing at full salute. Massive cheers erupt in appreciation for American armed forces. American flags abound and are often spread across the massive field. I don't believe that you have to be a football fan to be patriotic, but the NFL might have you believe otherwise.
Insofar as the performer of the Star-Spangled Banner at the Super Bowl, that person becomes a cultural touchstone for a year, serving as the arbiter of a song that is intended to connect us all. The truth is, however, even before the Star-Spangled protests that caused so much controversy last fall, only about 40% of Americans could claim to know every lyric to our National Anthem. (Something that the National Association for Music Education has jumped on in the past.) But that question of "What music does our country value this year?" has been on my mind for awhile.
My fascination began in 2014. I was in the midst of my first year teaching both band & chorus, still figuring out how to be a Choral Director. One thing I knew I had to do was expose students to singers they might have never heard otherwise as well as to analyze the vocal techniques of the singers they listen to on a regular basis.
When Renee Fleming tore the roof off of the proverbial sucker as she performed her country's anthem before one of world's largest television audiences prior to the 2014 Super Bowl, I knew I had my Chorus lesson plan for the next day. But of course, if you play one YouTube video for demonstration purposes for your students, they demand more. So on that day, we watched several other performances of the Star-Spangled Banner at the Super Bowl and compared and contrasted them. (In later years, my chorus students would ask each other, "If you don't like Renee Fleming, why are you in Chorus?")
Then I started to wonder: what made the powers that be select an American opera superstar as the Super Bowl National Anthem singer? What factors determine who sings the Star-Spangled Banner for any Super Bowl? While I still don't have those answers, I began to look for patterns in genre representation across Super Bowl National Anthem Performers.
Breaking Down Genre Identification
I compiled a full list of all Super Bowl Star-Spangled Banner performers (and some years, for some reasons, performers of "America the Beautiful") since 1967 and determined the musical genre represented. Please note as you read! Some of that genre determination is subjective! Having not run any particular statistical tests (would I perform a T-test? are there too many categories of data for that? I need to bust out my Experimental Research formula book and Vassar Stats, quickly!), I've got some color-coded Excel spreadsheets and pie charts.
I identified twelve musical genres represented among Super Bowl National Anthem performers: Band (school-based ensemble model, here involving marching bands), Celebrity, Choral, Classic Pop, Country, Inspirational, Jazz, Latin Pop, Modern Pop, R&B, Rock, and Soul.
A couple of not-very-quick notes about the genre identification:
- Many of these artists could be identified in more than one genre, but for many of them, I based their identification on their listing on the All Music Guide, which is a reliable and extremely useful resource. One of the biggest sticking points music fans may make with this list is my categorization of Jewel as a rock singer, but her initial success as a singer/songwriter within the context of 1990s alternative radio justifies her as a rock singer. She is the only Rock singer that I identified as a Super Bowl National Anthem performer.
- I made a distinction between Classic Pop and Modern Pop. This is based on time period as well as other genre distinctions, including typical instrumentation & vocal technique. I consider both Barry Manilow and Kelly Clarkson pop singers, but they are too stylistically different to lump together. My cut-off and the start of "Modern Pop" (for the purposes of this analysis) was the performance of the National Anthem by the Backstreet Boys in 2001.
- Folks may argue that Renee Fleming and Idina Menzel warrant their own genre distinctions as an opera & musical theatre singers, respectively, but I categorized them as Choral so as to not splinter off into too many genres.
- The second and third performances of the Star-Spangled Banner at the Super Bowl involved Lloyd Geisler, Anita Bryant, and the Grambling State Marching Band. I identified these performances as Band genre, mostly because Geisler and Bryant are extremely difficult to identify as particular genre singers. The Grambling State Marching Band would perform the SSB at the 1975 Super Bowl again, sans singers, so they can be considered a major performer and not a live accompaniment track.
- Celebrity is identified as a genre that performers whom I believe would not have been asked to perform were they not famous for other reasons and who have not contributed significantly to any specific genre. For example: I feel comfortable in describing Beyonce, great and terrible queen of all she surveys, as an R&B singer because she has helped to define the genre over the last 15 years. Kathie Lee Gifford, however, has not made any significant contribution to pop music, thus she draws the Celebrity genre distinction.
- The genre label is more so intended to categorize the singer, not the way in which they performed the anthem. If you were to travel back in time to 1996 and go looking for a Mariah Carey CD at a music store, you would have to look for her by genre. Having spent a relatively decent amount of time perusing through music stores (and having bought a few Mariah Carey CDs & tapes), I know I would have looked for her in the Pop genre.
You can check out the full sheet here: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1--T_ZHGlYdTs2gqlLAs-75jj2a1jX5XB7U7E-BdFfpI/edit?usp=sharing
I noticed some trends. However, there are too many variables to name, and I will not say definitively whether or not this simple data set supports changes in American television viewership, American popular music, or celebrity culture in the U.S. I'll leave that to the professional analysts and let you draw your own conclusions.
The chart below shows how often each genre has been represented by a performer in the first 50 years of the Super Bowl.
The largest genre representation is that of Choral music, helped out by the identification of Renee Fleming and Idina Menzel as Choral performers. But if you break the data set in half, chronologically, you find some things change.
For the first 25 years of the Super Bowl, the lion's share of performances are that of Choral and Jazz music, including several famous trumpeters (Al Hirt, Tommy Loy, Wynton Marsalis, and Herb Alpert). Pop performers, all categorized then as Classic Pop (including Neil Diamond and Billy Joel), made an appearance, but hardly dominated.
Super Bowl 25, however, was a turning point in the singing of the National Anthem, from a vocal & stylistic standpoint, in terms of its role in one of the U.S.'s largest television events, and in terms of time signature (sorry -- I love Whitney, but I can't resist that one).
Whitney Houston was exceedingly popular in 1991, prior even to her recording of Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You" (which would become arguably the biggest popular music single of all-time). Her Super Bowl appearance only cemented her status as a legend. Her performance of the Star-Spangled Banner at the Super Bowl that year received copious radio airplay and became a Top 20 single. Based on my observation, Houston's performance, though pre-recorded, became the standard for Super Bowl National Anthem performers in the next 25 years. Genre representation moved away from Choral music and abandoned Jazz trumpeters completely, whereas representation by R&B singers, Pop (both up-to-date Modern and nostalgic Classic), and notably, Country music increased in the second 25 years of the Super Bowl.
After Houston's game-changing rendition, which also coincided with the start of the first Iraq War, R&B singers took over the performance of the SSB, including Vanessa Williams, Mariah Carey (in 2002, shortly after 9/11), Jennifer Hudson, Alicia Keys, and one of my all-time favorite voices, Luther Vandross. Taking cultural landscape into account, after its premiere in 2002, four singers who had appeared on American Idol sang the National Anthem at the Super Bowl: Hudson, Jordin Sparks, Carrie Underwood, and Kelly Clarkson. (Although they represent three different genres, Idol singers represent 16% of the second 25 years' worth of performances.) Renee Fleming was the first opera singer to perform the National Anthem at the Super Bowl, which to many of us involved in the fine & performing arts in the U.S. was a signal of appreciation for American arts, despite continual lack of government monetary support. It remains to be seen if she will be the only lyric soprano in the Super Bowl's history to sing the National Anthem. The year after Fleming, there was Idina Menzel, whose illustrious Broadway career was somewhat overshadowed when her recording of "Let It Go" won an Oscar and drove parents around to madness the world in 2014. In 2016, Lady Gaga was selected for the 50th Super Bowl. Although Gaga certainly demonstrates vocal prowess, much like the Super Bowl itself, she has been perceived as one of our culture's most auspicious representatives of American excess and celebrity culture.
Genres of the Future
On Sunday night, country superstar Luke Bryan will perform the Star-Spangled Banner. Country music has been connected to the NFL since Hank Williams Jr.'s "All My Rowdy Friends" was refashioned as the theme for Monday Night Football. Is the selection of a country singer a reflection of album sales or YouTube hits, or is it a reflection on a cultural shift toward on blue collar, rurally-connected Americans, the prime demographic target of country music, in the light of last year's election? It has been eight years since a country singer, Carrie Underwood, sang the National Anthem at the Super Bowl, but the gap between the first country music performer, Charley Pride, and the second country music performer at the Super Bowl, Garth Brooks, was nearly 20 years. Maybe the selection of Bryan means little in a greater social/cultural context. In terms of how genre representation trends change, that will all depend who performs the National Anthem at the Super Bowl in the future.
Billy Corgan, one of my biggest musical influences as a teenager, if typically an inappropriate vocal role model, once said, "Truly great music obliterates any conception of genre." As popular music genres seem to merge together, I do think it is important to recognize the stylistic features of different music, especially from a vocal perspective. From an educational standpoint, you want students to be able to sing songs in an authentic way, whether they be "Danny Boy", "Love on Top", or even The Star-Spangled Banner. Various genres and various performers, however, have continued to redefine what the most authentic version of our National Anthem is. On Sunday, it will be Bryan's turn. I have a feeling he will be just fine, so long as he doesn't employ any of Christina Aguilera's technique. Yeesh.
*Edited for clarity & content on January 24th, 2018.