The Sunday Football-Related Music Post: O Say Can You See?

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Via Billboard

In the Week 2 of Dancing With the Stars writeup, I spoke about Hines Ward and how he had taken over “leading” the dance during the second week:

One of the things which I think makes the competition more difficult for the men than the women, and of course more difficult on their professional dance partners, is that the man has to lead. The women dancers can, and do, make quite an effort to disguise the fact that the guy isn’t really in control (and some would say this is a typical female role in life…) but it’s pretty obvious to the practiced eye who is really driving the bus. If the man can’t take over that role fairly early in the competition, it becomes more and more challenging for the woman to choreograph a dance which covers for the lack of leadership.

It’s rather like what occasionally happens in one of the top symphony orchestras. For some reason or other the orchestra has to schedule a guest conductor who isn’t really proficient. I can think of an example with the Pittsburgh Symphony some years ago, when the CEO of a large foreign manufacturer fancied himself a conductor and was basically buying conducting gigs with excellent orchestras through the bait of a very generous donation.

He wasn’t completely incompetent by any means, unlike the time Brett Keisel conducted the PSO in a mercifully brief number, but he wasn’t really driving the bus. I asked some of the players a few weeks after the concert how they handled something like that, and they said “We just follow the concertmaster (the principal first violin.)” This is fine, and the very standard repertoire generally chosen by such conductors, wisely, means that the players have played it, often as a group as well as individually, many times.

But still, something is missing…

Something also often seems to be missing in one of the last bastions of live music performance at football games. Yes, I’m talking about the National Anthem. As a musician I have to admit it troubles me that the singers are chosen for apparently almost entirely extra-musical reasons. And it seems that the bigger the game the less the choice has to do with how well the artist is likely to perform, you know, the National Anthem.

Part of my disgruntlement with the typical anthem rendition has to do with an inattention to musical details, such as singing in tune. Some has to do with excessive “stylization” which can almost obscure the original tune. There is a time and a place for that, and in my admittedly possibly minority view, singing the National Anthem as part of a salute to the military (which most of the performances seem to include one way or another) isn’t the time or place. But mainly, I would like for the performers to respect the piece enough to perform it well.

The choice of popular artists isn’t a new phenomenon. Within the first ten years of the Super Bowl’s history the performer(s) of the National Anthem have almost all been well-known artists of various stripes. Some of them did a great job. Others, like Pittsburgh native Christina Aguilera, were an embarrassment to themselves and the selection committee.

But when you start to look at past Super Bowl performances there are some real surprises which await you. Some performers who wouldn’t have struck me as ideal candidates did some of the best ever renditions.

Take this performance by Whitney Houston. It is considered one of the best, if not the best, rendition of the anthem. It has a lot going for it—an orchestral background, a good arrangement, a minimum of messing about, and her magnificent voice.

It can work the other way as well. The 2014 performance of Renée Fleming, opera superstar, was a big disappointment to me. I thought the arrangement was poor, her voice sounded pushed and not always in tune, and it just didn’t really work very well.

Tuning is admittedly a difficult thing, particularly when you have no backup. In an otherwise lovely performance, Carrie Underwood’s first and final notes were distinctly out of tune.

But I have to say, the Lady Gaga version this year really astonished me. It was exceedingly well-sung and the extraneous additions mostly made sense. And thank God she didn’t choose to wear a costume made of meat, or some other typical extravagance. Here it is:

I encountered this version from 1970, led by jazz trumpeter Al Hirt. Back then, people still tried to sing the anthem, and Hirt didn’t make it easy with his constant tempo changes. But it is certainly interesting. Note that the video is incorrectly labeled as being from 1979.

Hirt was the first trumpeter, but not the last. The following year Tommy Loy led it, and Wynton Marsalis and Herb Albert performed it in 1986 and 1988. Since then it has all been almost all solo singers, with few exceptions.

But in the earlier years there were a number of group presentations—choirs of all sorts, mainly. This one was somewhat of a novelty for the time—it was sung by a men’s acappella group, The Colgate Thirteen. It was sung at Super Bowl XIII, and the video features a nice shot of Chuck Noll:

Since this is getting a bit long and unwieldy I’m going to cut it off here, but I will continue it next week, as it turns out to be even more interesting than I expected. Although many of the performances are shot through with mediocrity at best and some of the choices of artist are almost inconceivable, there are a lot of great performances as well. And with any luck you’ll get a rant as well. You’ve been warned…

To be continued.

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