Let’s begin this ranking of the worst Super Bowl national anthem performances by stipulating that “The Star-Spangled Banner” is a hard song to sing. It runs from the lowest lows to the highest highs, and if you can hold that ending “free” for as long as it demands, you’re a better singer than most. Plus, you’re performing in front of 100 million people, which can pucker up even the finest troubadour. So let’s admire the courage it takes to even attempt the song.
That said … if we’re going to judge football players for making big mistakes on the biggest stage, well, we can judge anthem singers by the same standard, too. Thankfully, no singer (yet) has plumbed the depths of Carl Lewis’s atonal rendering prior to an NBA game or Roseanne Barr’s atrocity before a baseball game. Still, while anyone who can sing the anthem before the world is phenomenally talented, these brilliant singers picked a bad day to have a bad day …
6. N/A, Super Bowl XI: No anthem is a bad anthem. For whatever reason, the NFL decided in 1977 not to have a national anthem, instead opting for singer Vikki Carr to perform “America the Beautiful.” To date — and, likely, forever — it’s the only Super Bowl not to feature a pregame national anthem.
5. Alicia Keys, Super Bowl XLVII: Again, bearing in mind the talent and courage it takes to not just sing the anthem in front of millions, but accompany yourself on piano … this one wasn’t a bad anthem, per se, it was just … so … slooooooow. Clocking in at 2:32 — and much longer if you include the piano flourishes at the beginning and end — this one made anthem “over” bettors happy, but everyone else was ready to get started with the game.
4. Aretha Franklin, Aaron Neville, Dr. John, Super Bowl XL: Again: this is not a criticism of the Queen, or of Neville or the good doctor. This anthem is a misfire not of the performers, but of the arrangement. Aaron Neville could sing your tax return and make it sound sexy and romantic; Aretha Franklin could sing your grocery list and make it sound transcendent and inspiring. But duct-taping the two of them together back-to-back, adding a curiously restrained Dr. John to the mix, and then slathering a gospel choir on top just did not work. Too much of a good thing isn’t always a good thing.
3. Cheryl Ladd, Super Bowl XIV: The NFL was mixing politics and sports all the way back in 1980, when Ladd, one of the best-known TV stars of the era, dedicated the anthem to hostages then being held in Iran. Maybe the “Charlie’s Angels” star lip-synced, or maybe it’s just the aged video of the day, but this rendition screams “cruise ship lounge.” (Aside: Pat Summerall expressed disbelief at the size of the flag — which was only about 25 yards wide, a toy compared to today’s 100-yard-wide behemoths. Those were the days.)
2. Charley Pride, Super Bowl VIII: On the very first play of Super Bowl XLVIII, an errant snap pinged off Peyton Manning’s helmet and ended up in the end zone, leading to a safety and an eventual Seattle blowout. This was the national anthem equivalent, with country legend Charley Pride missing literally the first words of the song. He recovered well enough, but “remembering all the words” is the baseline for an anthem performance.
1. Christina Aguilera, Super Bowl XLV: Christina Aguilera is a national treasure, possessing all the skill and presence you could possibly want in a singer of her magnitude. And yet, even the best can make mistakes, as she did when she somehow turned “O’er the ramparts we watched” into “What so proudly we washed.” It wasn’t a bad save in the moment, given the stakes and circumstances, but the fumble cascaded — she rushed through the rest of the song and tripped on the big “free” and “brave” finish. It’s all good, Xtina; every single one of us would blow it far worse than you did.
Chris Stapleton is slated to sing this year’s national anthem. Here’s hoping he does absolutely nothing to warrant an addition to this list.