A Brief History
On September 14, 1814, while observing the Battle of Baltimore from a British ship, lawyer Francis Scott Key penned the poem, The Defence of Fort McHenry, the words that would be adapted as our (the USA) National Anthem. Commonly sung or played before sporting events and other special events, the tune is normally given the reverence reserved for those things that are greatly valued. Here we list times when the rendition of The Star Spangled Banner was performed in a way that drew criticism and ire from large chunks of the population. What examples would you add to the list? (Hint: Numerous people, some famous, have blown the lyrics or butchered the tune.)
UPDATE: The performance of our National Anthem at the 2018 NBA All Star Game by Fergie may well have taken the cake! Even players standing respectfully during her screeching rendition struggled to keep from laughing out loud. Maya Rudolph should sue for copyright infringement!!!
1. Jimi Hendrix, Woodstock, 1969.
Although around 400,000 fans had attended the iconic Woodstock Music Festival, only 30-40,000 were left on the last day to watch Jimi Hendrix play a guitar version of our National Anthem, a version so different, and so “Sixties” that it has become part of our national “Zeitgeist” about the 1960’s. Dick Cavett asked Hendrix on national television if he thought his rendition was “blasphemous,” and Hendrix called it “Beautiful,” Today, many thousands more people than actually witnessed the electrifying performance claim to have been present at the historical event.
2. Robert Goulet, Ali-Liston fight, 1965.
Prior to performing our nation’s song before the Heavyweight Championship fight between Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston, Goulet nervously left the VIP dinner 3 times to go outside and practice the song’s lyrics. When the big time came, Goulet shocked the audience by flubbing the lyrics, one of the first and best known examples of such a blunder. In those days, people took the National Anthem seriously, and Goulet was treated like “a bum.” (His words.) For years, Goulet was reminded of his blunder and became known best for that regrettable night.
3. Jose Feliciano, World Series, 1968.
The pre-game playing of the National Anthem at Game 5 of the World Series between the Tigers and Cardinals in Detroit led to a ripple of anger and rage across the country, when the Puerto Rican singer crooned his own, jazzed up version of the Big Song. The outrage about his non-traditional rendition led to radio stations across the US refusing to play his records. Over time, some resentment remained, but most of the public got over it and as Feliciano pointed out before singing his special version before Game 1 of the National League Championship Series in San Francisco. In fact, Feliciano had sung the song his soulful way in other recent years and been cheered by the crowd. Nonetheless, there are still Americans deeply offended by Jose’s ‘Can You See’…
4. Roseanne Barr, Reds-Padres Double Header, 1990.
Popular comedian and television star Roseanne was invited to sing the National Anthem between games in San Diego. Thinking that those that invited her realized she is a comedian and not a singer, decided to put a comedic touch into her performance. For starters, her singing was awful! A seriously wounded cow would sound at least as good, if not better. Then, repeatedly grabbing her crotch in what she thought was a parody of ballplayers adjusting their, well, adjusting themselves, and then spitting like a tobacco chewing player, put the crowd and the nation over the edge. People were so angry, no one was surprised when the President (George HW Bush) called the performance “disgraceful.” Despite having the #1 show on TV, Barr could not get a stand-up gig for a few years, and would not sing anywhere for at least a decade. She later claimed she could not hear herself properly while singing and thus sang as loud as she could (that is loud!), virtually screeching the words. She also said Padres team officials told her to “bring humor” to her performance. This fiasco became the defining moment of an otherwise highly successful career.
5. Pitbull, et al, “Nuestro Himno,” 2006.
Music producer Adam Kidron (British, not American, of course) thought a Spanish language version of the Star Spangled Banner would be a good idea and would reach Spanish speaking American audiences. Gathering pop-stars Pitbull, Wyclef Jean, Carlos Ponce and Olga Tanon to record the song, setting off controversy virtually immediately when word of the production became public. Conservative politicians raged and threatened laws to prohibit singing the National Anthem in a language other than English, and President George W. Bush chimed in that the song “ought to be sung in English.” Bush went on to say all immigrants should learn to speak English. More than just the language irritated many Americans, as words and phrases were also changed, and the line, “we are equal, we are brothers” was thrown in. In response to the harsh criticism, some Spanish speaking Americans came up with more controversial lines in Spanish and English to remix the song.
6. Christina Aguilera, Super Bowl XLV, 2011.
Singing the National Anthem before a Super Bowl gives a singer an enormous audience, and millions of Americans scrutinize the performance for any mistakes or nuances out of the ordinary. Aguilera, with a beautiful voice, of course had to “jazz up” the song and throw in about a million extra notes to each word, but it was blowing the lyrics that pushed the crowd and the television audience over the edge. (“What so proudly we watched” instead of “Oer the ramparts we hailed.”) Aguilera was excited and honored to be chosen to perform the National Anthem at the big game, and was embarrassed about blowing her biggest stage performance ever.
7. Marvin Gaye, NBA All-Star Game, 1983.
Gaye’s slow version of the game opening song infuriated CBS and NBA officials, and many in the audience at Inglewood, California (Los Angeles Lakers) booed, although most cheered. One of the slowest renditions ever on a large stage, Gaye threw in many “runs” and had a steady drum beat going backing him up. It was different! “Different” means “not good” to traditionalists, and Gaye was heavily criticized for his take on Our Song. He died a year later (shot by his own father), and his controversial performance has reached a higher level of appreciation over time.
8. Rene Marie, Denver State of the City Speech, 2008.
When Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper prepared to address the Mile High City, jazz singer Rene Marie was to sing the National Anthem before the speech. Only she interwove the “Black National Anthem” (“Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing”) with (kind of) the tune of the Star Spangled Banner. When introduced as “going to sing our National Anthem” Marie instead crooned the alternate song, and tepid clapping from the audience followed. Of course, conservative pundits such as Bill O’Reilly slammed the performance, and various politicians were outraged. Hickenlooper was unaware of Marie’s plan to sing a different song, and later called the performance “a distraction” and added that it was “close to impossible” that Marie would ever be invited to sing at a City function again. When asked what he thought about the controversy, President Barack Obama made it clear, “We have only one National Anthem.” Of course, others thought the words and performance were touching.
9. Beyonce, Presidential Inauguration, 2013.
This time it was not the words or the music that was controversial, but the obvious fact that Beyonce was lip-synching a pre-recorded version of the National Anthem. Following the highly lauded and praised performance by the powerful singer, people began figuring out the ruse that had taken place. Apparently a lack of opportunity to rehearse together with the Marine Corps Band made a recorded performance much safer. People that had thrilled to the wonderful rendition felt cheated and duped, especially as other singers (Kelly Clarkson and James Taylor) sang live.
10. R Kelly, Middleweight Championship Fight, 2005.
This time, it was including ‘step dancers’ as part of the performance that generated controversy, as well as Kelly’s invitation to the audience “Clap your hands, y’all!” Also, an idiotic syncopated Caribbean beat on what sounds like bongo drums and numerous changes in notes and rhythm make this version just a bit too “jazzed up” for uptight Americans. (The fight was Jermaine Taylor vs. Bernard Hopkins.) This version may well by the most unique of all those listed.
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The featured image in this article, the earliest surviving sheet music of “The Star-Spangled Banner”, from 1814, is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or fewer.