When Alicia Keys steps to the mic to sing the national anthem at Super Bowl 47 on Sunday, she will be taking on one of the most prestigious and biggest challenges in music.
Singing America's national anthem at the Super Bowl has been one of music's best opportunities since Whitney Houston's stirring rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at Super Bowl 25 in Tampa with the Gulf War as backdrop. Houston's version -- a pre-recorded "protection copy" played while Houston sang live into a dead microphone, similar to how Super Bowl 47 halftime singer Beyoncé's rendition of the national anthem at President Barack Obama's second inauguration was sung to a pre-recorded track -- was widely acclaimed, and made the top 20 of the Billboard Hot 100 after being released as a single. (It would later enter the top 10 of that chart after a post-9/11 release, and has been certified platinum by the RIAA.)
But the challenge for Keys is that every anthem since has been measured against Houston's perfectly-sung version, and not one has measured up. Most performers have merely compared unfavorably to the tremendous Whitney version, but Christina Aguilera's performance at Super Bowl 45 in Dallas was notably worse.
The singer who would become the centerpiece of NBC's The Voice sang the wrong words, replacing "O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming" with "What so proudly we watched at the twilight's last (inaudible)," essentially combining the anthem's second line ("What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming") with its fourth. She sang it well, with several extra dollops of melisma and theatricality, but became a target of national jokes after her error on America's biggest stage.
Kelly Clarkson, performing at Super Bowl 46 last season in Indianapolis, did not make the same mistake.
Keys has a staggering record of accomplishment as an artist, with 14 Grammy wins and 27 total Grammy nominations to her credit, and has sold more than 30 million records since 2001's Songs in A Minor, which spawned "Fallin'," her early breakthrough. And she has performed at two Super Bowls before, singing "America the Beautiful" before Super Bowl XXXIX in Jacksonville and singing a medley of her own material during the Super Bowl XLII pregame show. What she doesn't have is a long history of singing "The Star-Spangled Banner," with no evidence of her doing so on YouTube.
Still, if you're betting on the length of the national anthem -- one of many popular Super Bowl 47 prop bets, as few things are more American than wagering money, legally or illegally, on the Super Bowl -- you should probably pick the under. David Bamundo reported in The Wall Street Journal that the Super Bowl national anthem hasn't been longer than two minutes from "Oh" to "brave" since Jennifer Hudson stretched it to 2:10 for Super Bowl 43, and has only topped 2:00 three times in the last 10 renditions.
And if you want some Super Bowl trivia: Keys will be the sixth straight woman to sing the national anthem at the Super Bowl, extending the longest streak of consecutive performances by one gender.
It's unlikely Keys' "The Star-Spangled Banner" will give anyone a reason to think she didn't belong at the mic singing it.