Our National Anthem On The World’s Biggest Stage

Our National Anthem On The World’s Biggest Stage

020716-NFL-Recording-artist-Lady-Gaga-performs-the-national-anthem-PI.vadapt.664.high.6In the past few days, many people have compared Lady Gaga’s performance of the National Anthem at Super Bowl 50 to Whitney Houston’s epic version from the 1991 event. I’ve read the phrase “second best only to Houston’s” more than once.

I’d like to point out a few contrasts.

Houston was backed by a full orchestra. Gaga sang with just a piano. (A snare drum roll was added at the end.) Understand, I’m not saying either choice is better in and of itself. I’m just pointing out that the two settings are entirely different.

Houston’s vocal seemed to be an on-the-spot ad-lib, despite reportedly being lip-synced. At times, she’s slightly ahead or behind the orchestra, and one spot feels like the orchestra had to catch up. Gaga’s vocal seemed to be precisely rehearsed and executed. The jury is out on whether she lip-synced, but almost everything on a stage that massive is.

013015-NFL-Whitney-Houston-JW-PI.vresize.1200.675.high.96Houston’s version is pretty much in 4/4 time, extending the first beat of each measure in the original to two beats. Gaga sticks more closely to the 3/4 time of the original.

In addition to these musical elements, there are some sharp contrasts in each singer’s appearance. Houston wore a loose white jumpsuit with red and blue decorations and a white headband that forced her hair up. Gaga wore a meticulously crafted shiny red coat and pants, matching eye shadow, and blue fingernail polish with her hair swept back and down.

Are you sensing a theme here? Houston is free-wheeling. Gaga is carefully detailed.

So, with all these differences, why do so many people say Lady Gaga’s version is the second best out of 50 performances over the years?

05f7ec95e200f89e9f0afd6946b2ae63There are two reasons. Before Houston, most performers either made it all about their unique quirks or just phoned it in. Mariah Carey felt compelled to insert one of her three-octave jumps into a range where only small animals can hear. With his trademark “love groove” arrangement, I wasn’t sure if Luther Vandross wanted to honor our nation or convince some woman to go home with him after it was over. Neil Diamond ran up to the podium, sang it faster than anyone else, and then ran away. He just wanted to get paid and get out of there. Others had no business being there in that capacity. Cheryl Ladd…really?

I do like Faith Hill’s version, though.

After Houston, well, if it isn’t anything at all like Houston’s style, we just forget about it. Remember Renee Fleming from two years ago? She may be the most skilled Super Bowl National Anthemist ever. I was certainly impressed by her technique, how well she managed her vocal tone, and so forth. She lost me with her vibrato at the end, though. And, in terms of the general public’s taste, most people are less likely to remember an opera star vs. a multi-platinum selling pop star.

A4S_hudsono020409_55446a_8colIf it IS somewhat like Houston’s, we say it’s second best. OK…so if we stay strictly within that parameter, Lady Gaga isn’t second best. That crown would go to Jennifer Hudson’s 2009 version.

Hudson’s version was also reported to be lip-synced, by the way. Who among you would have thought I’d prefer lip-synced performances?

Before I wrap this up, I want to go back and point out one final contrast between the Houston and Gaga versions. I saved this for last, because it’s a little more personal, I suppose. This is not an observation. It’s how I feel. I believe some of you probably share my reaction.

With Gaga’s performance, I felt like I was watching an accomplished singer, but it never really hit me emotionally.

When Whitney Houston hits the word “free” there toward the end and flips it up a fourth, I get a goose-bump chill that usually runs across the upper side of my back and lower neck.

Every. Single. Time.

I’m feeling it right now just thinking about it.

Until I get that uncontrollable chill from another singer’s performance, Whitney Houston’s National Anthem is the standard all others are trying to reach.

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David Bruce Murray

David Bruce Murray is a church music director in Ellenboro, NC. He is the author of Murray's Encyclopedia Of Southern Gospel Music and the owner of both SGHistory.com and MusicScribe.com. David plays piano for Southern Sounds Quartet and the Foothills Community Choir.

MusicScribe Comments

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  1. Reply February 13, 08:41 #1 JSR

    I love the chemistry and harmony on this version.

    Sorry for the less than perfect sound quality.


    • Reply February 13, 14:16 David Bruce Murray Author

      Thanks for the link. For this article, I was just limiting it to Super Bowl performances, but that is a very good version.

      More importantly, I thought your comment really needed a reply, because I’m way overdue for a “you just can’t beat family harmony” comment. :)

    • Reply February 20, 22:32 QwertyJuan

      When talking about “McKnights” you can’t forget these guys… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Cpm-UcesvY


  2. Reply February 13, 09:32 #2 Tommy Jones

    Too many make it about the messenger, not the message. It drives me crazy when these “singers” hit three different notes on each word and it takes them five minutes to perform this great song.

  3. Reply February 13, 09:53 #3 Darrell

    Ok, so after hearing all the hype about this performance, I finally watched it on YouTube. Normally I am not a fan of the National Anthem. Not the words as much as the music itself. Maybe because too many people overdo it. But this was good. I knew Lady Gaga was a good singer, and this confirmed it for me. “Second best of all-time?” I guess that’s something people can debate about for years to come. :-) On a side note, I thought the performance of “America The Beautiful” right before the National Anthem was good too. Those military academies really know how to sing.

  4. Reply February 13, 12:44 #4 JimT

    I’m not sure what this is doing on a southern gospel web site. I am one who records football games so I can start them an hour after kick-off, skip commercials, and still be live by the end of the game. Because Super Bowl commercials are usually very creative i do watch them, but fast forward all the pre-game and half time hoopla, so never watched either Whitney Houston or Lady Gaga sing the National Anthem. Even after reading all the above, I don’t think I really missed a thing.

  5. Reply February 13, 16:37 #5 Lisa Bame

    Hey, David!
    Lady Gaga did a nice job, but I agree with you that it didn’t have the emotional impact of Whitney Houston’s version. I also think it should have been sung a little faster.

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