Perhaps anxious to get right to the game, Christina Aguilera’s rendition of the Star Spangled Banner before the Super Bowl not only improvised a few words, but removed one line altogether. Considering that the NFL has turned the game into a reality TV show (Janet Jackson has become a more notorious figure in Super Bowl history than Scott Norwood), rather than just a sporting event, the publicity following the botched Anthem probably has league suits beaming. Not only does the NFL seem to relish every last crumb of media attention, but for at least one more day, postseason focus was diverted from the impending lockout that could shut the sport down for some time to come.
Questionable performances of the National Anthem are not unique to the NFL. Baseball, with its thousands of games each season, has had more than its fair share of debacles ever since the tradition first started during the turn of the 20th century (the custom of singing the Anthem before every game began during World War II). Undoubtedly, the worst rendition of the national song took place before a San Diego Padres game on July 25, 1990, when the team inexplicably decided to invite comedian Roseanne Barr to do the honors. In what could only be described as a desecration, Barr not only completely mangled the lyrics with a shrill vocal delivery, but then she proceeded to make lewd gestures while walking off the field to a serenade of boos.
Before Barr’s disgraceful peformance, one of the most controversial renditions of the Anthem took place before game 5 of the 1968 World Series. Amid the backdrop of a very tense time in Detroit, which had been ravaged by social unrest and racially motivated riots, Tigers’ announcer Ernie Harwell booked a young, blind Puerto Rican singer named Jose Feliciano to perform the National Anthem. In the past, very little liberty was taken with the song’s delivery, but on this evening, Feliciano chose a soulful rendition inspired by his Latin jazz roots.
Only moments after the unorthodox version was completed, hundreds of outraged viewers flooded television station switchboards. In the ensuing days, Harwell was widely criticized, with some even suggesting he was a Communist. Things were even worse for Feliciano, whose music was blackballed for sometime to come. Despite the controversy, both Harwell and Feliciano persevered and went on to enjoy very successful careers, and in the process, their involvement in what was once a moment of scorn was turned into a source of pride. Feliciano’s rendition is still remembered to this day, but the recollections are now mostly positive. In fact, the singer was invited back to Tiger Stadium on May 10, 2010 to once again sing the Star Spangled Banner during a tribute to the recently deceased Harwell.
Although Feliciano’s singing of the National Anthem paved the way for the more creative renditions often song today, resistance to some interpretations still remains. Of course, with the exception of debacles like Barr’s, just about any performance would probably be preferable to forgetting the words. That’s a lesson Aguilera found out the hard way…ramparts and all.