HARLEM — Christina Aguilera botched the national anthem at the Super Bowl last night and a lot of stupid people with Internet access jumped on the opportunity to call her unpatriotic. Most rational people chalked up her lyrical mistake to something far less nefarious — like picking a really, really bad time to have a bad day at work — though I doubt she’ll ever hear the end of it.
Anyway, Aguilera’s blunder ensured that Whitney Houston’s claim to the greatest Super Bowl pregame rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” will stand for at least one more year. That’s 21 years in the top spot, for those scoring at home. (If you’ve never heard it, do yourself a favor and watch the video above). Some consider it the best vocal performance of the song at any sporting event, an impressive feat considering its long history.
The custom of playing “The Star Spangled Banner” at sporting events began at the 1918 World Series. According to Joseph L. Price, a professor of religious studies at Whittier College, a band spontaneously began playing the song before the Cubs came to bat against the Red Sox in Game 1. Based on a New York Times report from the game, Price writes: “Players and fans stood in civilian salute, most holding their caps over their hearts, while Red Sox’ third baseman Fred Thomas, a Great Lakes sailor, assumed ‘the military pose.'”
But it wasn’t until Game 4 until the anthem was presented as we know it today, before the game. From Price:
Unlike its timing at Wrigley Field, the band at Fenway started the fourth game of the 1918 World Series with “The Star Spangled Banner.” The New York Times referred to it as “The National Anthem” the following day – a designation it had earlier received from Woodrow Wilson. Despite the delay in play on this occasion, the patriotic crowd greeted wounded soldiers in uniform with wild applause and enthusiastic cheers when the men, most of whom were bandaged and on crutches, were shown to their seats.
Since those beginnings, the singing of the anthem has become a major part of any sporting spectacle, including the Super Bowl. It’s a difficult song, even for accomplished musicians, which is made even more challenging by the sheer size of the audience. Some crack under the pressure, as evidenced by Aguilera.
But instead of crushing Aguilera, I thought it would be far more constructive to celebrate a time that the anthem was done to perfection, such as it was at old Tampa Stadium the night Whitney Houston stepped up to the mic.
I was 11 in January of 1991, and on the night of the Super Bow XXV, I learned that I was old enough to appreciate an amazing performance when I heard one. All these years later, just before the national anthem at the Super Bowl, I still let myself hope for a moment that maybe this is the year somebody gives Whitney a run for her money.
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