Star Spangled Blander

After a decade of women performing the national anthem at the Super Bowl, 2017 saw all-American country singer Luke Bryan belt out the Star Spangled Banner. It was well-received, hailed as a return to tradition, but was it actually? We scratched the surface – and found something unusual about it…

Given the current political climate, a lot of eyes were trained on the Super Bowl half-time show this year – with people wondering if Lady Gaga was going to try to make some sort of statement with her performance.

Meanwhile, in the shadow of such controversy, the decision to have Luke Bryan to sing the national anthem at the start was seen as being an incredibly safe choice. People weren’t expecting a country star from Georgia to do anything to rock the cradle – and, by and large, they were correct. Bryan’s performance of The Star Spangled Banner passed without major incident and it got rave notices in the press.

It was “a decidedly understated performance of a song that can often be overblown”. It was “sturdy, powerful and respectful”. It was “simple, without any frills or vocal exercises”.

Except.

There were frills. They were few and far between, admittedly, but they were there. And this rush to declare Bryan’s rendition as a return to “tradition” all but confirms a theory we’ve been developing about the American national anthem for a few years now.

Namely, that Whitney Houston has rewritten it.

It’s still the same song, yes, and probably will be for a long time to come. But Whitney Houston has added something to the original that even the most “traditional” performance doesn’t seem to be able to shake off.

Let’s take a quick look at how Luke Bryan actually sang the first few lines. His deviations from the original melody line are marked out in green.

OK, he’s not throwing out any particularly ambitious or adventurous variations on the theme here, but you can see that there are a number of changes made. Most notable are those three-note runs (which you can see on “you”, on “hailed” and on “gleaming”).

This is not how the melody was originally written, but this little three-note habit has become so pervasive that it is now accepted as standard. Luke Bryan including these little flourishes is ‘sturdy’, ‘respectful’, ‘simple’.

Fine, you might think. But how do we know that this is Whitney’s influence?

We’ve explored Whitney’s 1991 performance in much greater depth here, if you’ve really got the appetite for it, but to concentrate on the first two lines for the moment, here’s what she does (variations in purple).

As you can see, there are similar three-note run-downs on ‘hailed’ and ‘gleaming’. In and of itself, no great deal. Who’s to say that Luke Bryan wouldn’t have put those three-note runs in anyway? That doesn’t conclusively prove that he took direct or indirect inspiration from Whitney. Fair enough.

But what if we had a control group? An artist who has performed the national anthem at the Super Bowl twice – both before and after Whitney. Billy Joel, for example. Joel has performed the national anthem at the Super Bowl twice in his career. Once in 1989 (pre-Whitney) and once in 2007 (post-Whitney).

How do the two compare?

Here’s the 1989 version, with Billy Joel’s alterations marked out in turquoise.

See any turquoise? No. There’s none there. And that’s not a mistake.

In 1989, Billy Joel sang it straight as a dart. So straight, in fact, that the crowd had little problem in joining in with him. This sort of audience participation isn’t something we’ve seen/heard much of in recent years – mainly because the crowds would have absolutely no chance of keeping up with Mariah Carey or Beyoncé, even if they could guess where they were going with the tune.

Compare this with Joel’s 2007 rendition.

There is a little bit of autotune on this (Joel says it wasn’t his idea and he had no idea that the network was doing it) but we can still make out his intended melody.

Billy Joel ’07 has a few differences to Billy Joel ’89. It’s a semitone lower than before – which is understandable, as his voice will lower with age.

More importantly however, the three-note runs appear.

The 1989 version is what a literal no-frills performance looks like. The timing, the melody, the phrasing all appear as it was originally written. And while the 2007 version is hardly an extravaganza (certainly not when compared to Christina Aguilera’s bone-and-gristle butchery in 2011) it undeniably has frills.

And who brought us those frills? Whitney Houston…

It would be crass to try to make too political a point out of all of this. Any individual performance, after all, tells us more about the performer than it does about the state of the American psyche. Still, for better or for worse, this is what the American national anthem sounds like now.

And given Trump’s propensity for pomp and bombast – it’s only going to get frillier from here.