As we head into the 4th of July weekend, let’s pause to remember some of the standout celebrities who’ve tested their lungs with “The Star-Soangled Banner” in the past. When the smoke clears, is there proof through the night that their careers are still there? Which singers can we see realizing midway through their performances that they’re the bombs bursting in air?
Before we get to the 10 best modern renditions of Francis Scott Key’s classic, here are 10 duds that’ll make you very, very glad that no one in recorded history has ever sung all four verses of the song.
WORST NO. 10: STEVEN TYLER
Say what you will about the rocker-turned-Idol judge, but unlike most of the others on our worst list, he actually hits all the notes he goes for. But when you’ve got a voice so inherently unsuited for the anthem, that’s not necessarily a good thing. And he does flub (and then quickly correct himself) on one line, singing about “the hooooo-laaaaand of the free.” If you’re a fan, anyway, the Aerosmith frontman’s go-for-broke chutzpah here works… almost.
WORST NO. 9: KERI HILSON
She’s got the chops for the song… but not, obviously, the photographic memory.
WORST NO. 8: JESSE MCCARTNEY
Rather than stumble over his forgetfulness like other singers, McCartney makes it seem like he planned to do an abridged version. As puzzled as some of the onlookers appear, surely they were grateful for the condensing by song’s end.
WORST NO. 7: MICHAEL BOLTON
Perhaps having learned from others’ flubs, Bolton came prepared with Sarah Palin-style crib notes. Unfortunately, there is an art to surreptitiously sneaking a look at one’s hand, and the crooner obviously did not get nearly enough experience cheating in college.
WORST NO. 6: ANITA BAKER
How can a good singer go so bad? Whatever the cause, this boo-prompting rendition of the anthem was no rapture/all vocal bankruptcy.
WORST NO. 5: KAT DELUNA
When in doubt — or especially if you know you are really, seriously blowing it — act as if you are delivering the most powerful version of the song of all time. You will still get roundly booed and become the ridicule of all of YouTube. But who are you going to believe: the crowd, or your own hand gestures and facial mannerisms?
WORST NO. 4: CARL LEWIS
The champion runner turned out to be an Olympian among bad singers. P.S. Here is something you should probably never, ever utter in the middle of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” even if it’s merited: “Uh-oh.”
WORST NO. 3: R. KELLY
You won’t believe he can fly. Forced for once to sing a song that is about neither sex nor his late mother, Kelly is flummoxed. Thus, this series of stylistically inappropriate choices, from the awkward syncopation to the folks swing-dancing in the background. Never before have the lyrics been rendered as “and the home come on clap your hands! of the brave.” And never should they be again.
WORST NO. 2: ROSEANNE BARR
You were waiting for this one, but you’re a little surprised to see it in second place instead of first, right? Well, at least Roseanne gets credit for trying to sing the anthem as awfully as possible. Which is kind of like saying she should only get eight death sentences instead of nine. Needless to say, two decades later, she’s still being punished in the court of popular opinion, being the only person on this list whose rendition arguably marked the beginning of the end of a career.
AND THE WORST NATIONAL ANTHEM EVER…? SCOTT STAPP!
When you think “national anthem,” you think low, growly, gravelly, fairly rangeless voices… right? Obviously, as rockers go, Steven Tyler is practically Kate Smith compared to the Creed singer. When a phalanx of jets appears overhead, surely everyone in the audience assumed the President had hit the Oval Office’s red button specifically to bomb Stapp, with everyone else at the event to be written off as so much collateral damage. What red-blooded, flag-waving, patriotic American wouldn’t hear this version of the anthem and want to turn Commie?
But, of course, there have been plenty of singers in recent years whose renditions have roused our love of country and melisma. Here are some of the standouts:
BEST NO. 10: MAYA RUDOLPH
This one is a bit of a cheat: Rudolph is so great because she’s so perfectly terrible in her comedic impression of everyone who ever oversang the anthem. This Saturday Night Live sketch could serve as a cautionary video for Christina to watch before the Bowl.
BEST NO. 9: CARRIE UNDERWOOD
It’s almost too predictable how well she’s going to be able to nail it, but that won’t stop us from admiring anyone who can pull the anthem off so nicely a cappella.
BEST NO. 8: KELLY CLARKSON
Ditto to the a cappella factor mentioned about Underwood, above. And extra props for the restraint that Clarkson shows on the melisma until the final stretch, when she can’t help but bust out those Idol-making extra notes.
BEST NO. 7: FAITH HILL
We don’t honestly know what the Scottish bagpipers are doing here, but it’s still a swell arrangement, well delivered by the country-pop chateuse.
BEST NO. 6: BEYONCÉ
This 2006 Super Bowl appearance represents the gold standard of the second half of the last decade. What ballplayer would not be inspired to go kick some oppositional butt after this ridiculously rousing rendition? Seriously — how could either team lose?
BEST NO. 5: JOSH GROBAN WITH FLEA
This might be most controversial among the “bests,” since some observers at the time groused that a neo-classical singer hooking up with a Red Hot Chili Pepper was a twain that never should have met. But the mixture of Groban’s ultra-traditional voice with slightly non-traditional accompaniment — especially that drum corps, even more than whatever Flea is doing on the bass — was adventurous and, also, pure class.
BEST NO. 4: MARVIN GAYE
This is probably what R. Kelly was trying for (see the Worst list, above). Gaye does an R&B version of the anthem against nothing but a drum backing, and adapting it to a syncopated meter doesn’t always work perfectly. But the spontaneity of the moment — and the expertise and effortlessness of Gaye’s every syllable—add up to a legendary performance that’s still well remembered 28 years later.
BEST NO. 3: JIMI HENDRIX
The anthem rendered as a sort of free jazz, as mindbending as it is string-bending. For a generation or three of serious rock 'n’ roll fans, the only version that matters.
BEST NO. 2: WHITNEY HOUSTON
Dated fashion sensibility aside, this pre-Super Bowl performance hasn’t aged. It may remain the most highly regarded version of our lifetimes, being the rendition that instantly became a smash as a single the week after the Bowl. Yes, it was pre-recorded, like most modern versions of the anthem, but that doesn’t really take away from the genius of the moment that made Francis Scott Key a key figure in contemporary pop music. Here’s the Houston we miss so much.
AND THE NO. 1 VERSION OF THE ANTHEM…? THE DIXIE CHICKS!
You might say this top slot sensibly belongs to Whitney, and maybe you’d be right. But we rarely hear “The Star-Spangled Banner” attempted in three-part harmony, let alone pulled off so brilliantly as by the Chicks at the 2003 Super Bowl. It’s ironic now to watch them admired by saluting veterans, just a couple of months before they publicly dissed President Bush’s war plans and became the pariahs of much of the patriotic right. But this is a rendition that crosses all preconceptions and political boundaries — and we swear it’d turn Toby Keith into a Natalie-lover if he watched it again.