First written over 200 years ago, The Star-Spangled Banner has slowly grown from a patriotic poem to the official national anthem performed at most American sporting events. From Mariah Carey and Lady Gaga to Jimi Hendrix, here are the best national anthem performances of all time.
Lady Gaga National Anthem: Super Bowl 50 (2016)
Incredible, powerful, and a modern classic, are just some of the ways that people have described Lady Gaga‘s 2016 performance of The Star-Spangled Banner at Super Bowl 50. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s so good you might tear up with pride. She’s #1 on this list of best national anthem performances of all time because she earned it in every way.
Instead of a band, or a full orchestra, Lady Gaga was accompanied by just a single piano player. The stripped-down musical accompaniment put an even stronger emphasis on her powerful vocals that were both delicate and booming throughout the song. Even professional vocal coaches are blown away by Lady Gaga’s National Anthem performance at the Super Bowl.
In addition to her fantastic vocal execution, Lady Gaga’s outfit did not disappoint. From her glittery red Gucci pantsuit and eye shadow to her blue-starred nails, Lady Gaga performed the anthem in a full-body tribute to American Spirit.
Lady Gaga National Anthem Highlights:
- Minimal music accompaniment; piano only
- Full range of vocals
- Her outfit personified American Spirit
- Powerful vocal finish
- After the song ends she looks up for the fighter jets and adds a second “the brave” to extend the song until the jets finally flyover the stadium.
Whitney Houston National Anthem: Super Bowl XXV (1991)
Whitney Houston‘s national anthem at Super Bowl XXV in 1991 in Tampa, FL is widely considered to be one of the best national anthem performances of all time. It’s beloved for two reasons: the timing of the performance and her classic and clean execution of the song.
- Houston’s performance took place just days after the start of the Gulf War (2 August 1990 – 28 February 1991) to a passionate and patriotic American audience.
- Unlike other singers who like to “showoff sing” the national anthem, Houston sang The Star-Spangled Banner clean without any flamboyant or extraneous notes.
Whitney Houston‘s rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner is so classic that it was released as a single in 1991 with many proceeds going to charities for Desert Storm veterans. And when Americans need comfort and a boost of patriotic spirit again, the single was re-released after the September 11th terrorist attacks.
Whitney Houston National Anthem Highlights:
- Minimal extraneous notes
- A clean, classic, and slower version of the anthem
Jimi Hendrix National Anthem: Woodstock (1969)
Jimi Hendrix‘s second band, Gypsy Sun And Rainbows, was the final act at the 1969 Woodstock music festival. While on stage, the legendary guitarist made history playing a very controversial psychedelic version of the national anthem on guitar. At the time, any deviation from a traditional marching band version of The Star-Spangled Banner was practically unheard of.
In response to the controversy, Hendrix, a veteran of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, denied that his version of The Star-Spangled Banner was a Vietnam War protest.
Years later, his performance continues to inspire musicians like Slash, Flea, and Metallica to name a few, who like Hendrix, perform distorted instrumental versions of the national anthem in honor of America.
Cher National Anthem: Super Bowl XXXIII (1999)
In 1999, Cher was 53 years old and still one of the most relevant names in music. Fresh off the success of her multiplatinum album Believe, Cher was invited to sing the national anthem for the Super Bowl at Pro Player Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida. Showcasing her signature deep female contralto vocals, Cher gave a dramatic and unforgettable rendition of the national anthem.
The only thing that bugs me about this performance is how the sign language dancers were visually added to the screen. The execution is distracting and visually takes away from Cher’s performance. Otherwise, I love the energy that the sign language dancers have for the anthem.
Cher National Anthem Highlights:
- How Cher perfectly holds her note during “the brave”
- Contralto vocals
- Cher’s Star-Spangled outfit: red hair, white sequence blouse, blue nails
Mariah Carey National Anthem: Super Bowl XXXVI (2002)
There’s a lot of pressure for performers tasked with singing the national anthem in time of war or national tragedy. But that’s exactly when Mariah Carey found herself taking the microphone, at the first Super Bowl game after the September 11th attacks on America.
If Carey was nervous, she didn’t show it. Her vocals soared through The Star-Spangled Banner with grace and ended with a (very, very) high note for the line “the land of the free.” And Carey isn’t usually one to shy away from her “showoff singing” style often parodied on shows like Saturday Night Live, but she kept the amount of extraneous notes subtle and toned down.
Mariah Carey National Anthem Highlights:
- A beautiful modern version of The Star-Spangled Banner
- Carey saves her signature super-high notes for just one word, “free”, at the end of the song
Beyonce National Anthem: Super Bowl XXXVIII (2004)
For the 2004 Super Bowl in Houston, TX, NFL organizers offered Houston native, Beyonce her choice between the national anthem or the halftime show. Being able to sing The Star-Spangled Banner at the Super Bowl was a childhood dream of hers. As a result, Beyonce turned down the halftime show, an honor she would have anyway several years later in 2012.
Accompanied by a full band, Beyonce performed a classic rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner and gave an incredible performance with a very powerful finish.
Unfortunately, Beyonce’s National Anthem performance was overshadowed by an incident that would happen just a few hours later, Janet Jackson’s Nipplegate. In a manufactured PR stunt, a fake wardrobe malfunction caused Justin Timberlake to “accidentally” expose Janet Jackson’s nipple on live TV. If Beyonce had accepted the offer to perform at the halftime show, Nipplegate would probably have never happened.
Almost a decade later, Beyonce sang The Star-Spangled Banner at an even more momentous occasion, President Obama’s 2013 Inauguration Ceremony. Despite some audio issues (she pulled her earpiece out mid-song), she gave what appeared to be a flawless performance. Maybe too flawless. A representative from the U.S. Marine Band revealed that both Beyonce lip-synced her vocals and that the band played along to a pre-recorded track. If it wasn’t for the lip-sync controversy, we would have included this performance as her entry on this list of best national anthem performances of all time.
Beyonce National Anthem Highlights:
- Classic rendition
- Powerful finish
Faith Hill National Anthem: Super Bowl XXXIV (2000)
Faith Hill had the opportunity to sing one of the best national anthem performances of all time at the turn of the millennium. Except for the Scottish bagpipers at the start of the song (why the hell were they there anyway?), the country music diva gave a clean and powerful rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner. Her execution was flawless and she knew that she nailed it. In the final moment of the performance, she raises a clenched fist in the air and lets out a “whoo” away from the microphone.
Faith Hill National Anthem Highlights:
- How much the song improves without the bagpipers
- Her perfect pitch for the line “the rockets red glare”
The Dixie Chicks National Anthem: Super Bowl XXXVII (2003)
At the height of their popularity, The Dixie Chicks were invited to perform the national anthem at Super Bowl XXXVII in San Diego, CA. Their rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner features beautiful country harmonies and earned them high praise.
The band’s career growth was almost unstoppable until their comments about President George W. Bush two months later. In a reference to the Iraq War, band member Natalie Maines told a London audience “Just so you know, we’re ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas.” The comments ignited an international political controversy and major backlash from their conservative country fan base so severe that The Dixie Chicks still haven’t fully recovered.
Dixie Chicks National Anthem Highlights:
- Beautiful country harmonies
- Daytime fireworks timed to explode during “the rocket’s red glare”
Carrie Underwood National Anthem: Seattle Seahawks NFL Game (2010)
From the World Series to her husband’s NHL hockey games, Carrie Underwood has sung the national anthem so many times that she often just sings it a Cappella. Honestly, it was hard to pick one of her versions of The Star-Spangled Banner to include on this list of best national anthem performances of all time. They are all almost perfect.
During an interview with Jimmy Kimmel, Underwood discussed the pressure that performers feel when singing The Star-Spangled Banner and how she worries about trying to time the finish her performance just as the fighter jets fly over the stadium.
Carrie Underwood National Anthem Highlights:
- Beautiful a Cappella version
- Perfect pacing
- Lots of smiles
Demi Lovato National Anthem: MLB Playoffs (2015)
Carrie Underwood isn’t the only vocalist that can make singing the national anthem a Cappella look easy. Former Disney Channel star Demi Lovato sang The Star-Spangled Banner before Game 4 of the 2015 MLB World Series at Citi Field in New York City. Only 23-years old at the time, Lovato was invited to perform as part of the promotion for their fifth album, Confident.
Demi Lovato National Anthem Highlights:
- Roaring crowd
- Lovato’s elegant pause before the line “the rocket’s red glare”
- Big hold on “banner yet wave”
Luther Vandross National Anthem: Super Bowl XXXI (1997)
“Smooth” might as well be Luther Vandross‘s middle name because that’s the only way to describe every note that comes out of his mouth. Vandross’s smooth rendition of the national anthem at Super Bowl XXXI is likely the best R&B version of The Star-Spangled Banner ever performed.
Luther Vandross National Anthem Highlights:
- Unique R&B version of the national anthem
- Pitch perfect performance
Billy Joel National Anthem: Shea Stadium (2008)
There are only a couple of men on this list and Billy Joel has definitely earned his place here. From the World Series to The Stanley Cup, Billy Joel has sung the national anthem many times throughout his career at sporting events. He’s performed both a Capella or with either a piano or organ. But one of his best performances of the national anthem was at one of his concerts. In 2008, Joel played piano and sang the national anthem for a packed crowd at Shea Stadium in New York City.
Billy Joel National Anthem Highlights:
- Crowd singalong
- A packed Shea Stadium
Kelly Clarkson National Anthem: Super Bowl XLVI (2012)
She might have gotten her big break from winning American Idol in 2002, but Kelly Clarkson hasn’t let her reality television roots define her career. A full decade after her Idol win, Clarkson was still creating hit music and invited to sing the national anthem at the 2012 Super Bowl.
Her soulful rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner features a young choir and was classy enough to be included on this list of the best national anthem performances of all time.
Kelly Clarson National Anthem Highlights:
- Upbeat version
- School choir
Jennifer Hudson National Anthem: Democratic National Convention (2008)
In 2008, Jennifer Hudson sang the National Anthem on the last day of the Democratic National Convention (DNC). Later that day, Senator Barack Obama delivered his acceptance speech for his historic run for president. Obama personally requested Hudson for the honor, and she did not disappoint. Despite the mediocre sound mix on C-SPAN, her strong vocals knocked it out of the park.
Several months later, Hudson gave another incredible national anthem performance at Super Bowl XLIII in 2009 at the Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. Although this performance is of better sound quality, it doesn’t match the pride and passion of her version for Obama.
Jennifer Hudson National Anthem Highlights:
- Strong vocals
- Passion and pride
The Star Spangled-Banner Isn’t An Easy Song To Sing
Getting included on a list of the best national anthem performances of all time is an earned honor. These talented musicians might make it look easy, but The Star-Spangled Banner is a notoriously hard song to perform. Both professional singers and celebrities have struggled and failed at their opportunities to sing the national anthem.
Saturday Night Live‘s Maya Rudolph did an excellent mashup of a variety of terrible national anthem performances.
A Brief History Of The Star-Spangled Banner
Originally written in 1812 by a lawyer and poet hobbyist named Francis Scott Key, The Star-Spangled Banner has been a major part of America’s patriotic expression for centuries.
On September 14, 1814, Key saw something so patriotic during the War Of 1812 that it inspired him to write a poem that would later become the American national anthem. That morning he witnessed the surviving American forces from a British bombardment raise an American flag over Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland.
Just a month prior, America had suffered a humiliating defeat when British troops invaded Washington, D.C., and torched several major government buildings, including the White House. Their next objective was to destroy Fort McHenry and capture the strategic seaport of Baltimore.
But despite a relentless 24-hour attack by the British, the American soldiers stationed at Fort McHenry held their ground. When the bombardment finally stopped, U.S. soldiers hoisted a huge American flag over the fort marking a turning point in the War Of 1812 for the United States.
Francis Scott Key wrote The Star-Spangled Banner (originally titled “Defence of Fort M’Henry”) and shared it with a local newspaper. The song’s lyrics quickly spread to other newspapers throughout the American colonies solidifying its initial popularity in American history.
The Star-Spangled Banner was a popular patriotic song but didn’t overtake “Yankee Doodle” until the American Civil War (1861-1865) when the American flag’s symbolism communicated a more serious and respectful sense of national unity and pride.
Key died in 1843 from pleurisy, 18 years before the American Civil War, and the mass adoption of The Star-Spangled Banner by the American Union. In the mid-1890s, the US Military started using the song at important ceremonies. Then in 1916, an executive order was signed by President Woodrow Wilson designating The Star-Spangled Banner as the national anthem of the United States. 15 years later in 1931, Congress officially made The Star-Spangled Banner the national anthem of the United States, 119 years after it was originally composed.
Why The Star-Spangled Banner Is Performed At Sporting Events
The first time The Star-Spangled Banner was ever performed at a major sporting event, was at the 1918 World Series game between the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox at Chicago’s Comiskey Park. The nation was living in a state of fear and uncertainty as America’s involvement in World War I was starting to grow.
During the 7th inning stretch, the military band at the game started playing The Star-Spangled Banner. As soon as they began, the stadium fell silent and both players and fans spontaneously started saluting the American flag. The incredible spectacle resulted in baseball teams across the country adopting the practice. Other professional sports soon joined them and the patriotic ritual quickly became an unwritten standard practice.
Taking A Knee During The National Anthem
The Star-Spangled Banner is not without controversy. Even though its author, Francis Scott Key spoke out against slavery, he was a slave owner. This fact creates a lot of questions about his meaning behind the line “the land of the free.”
Also, as racial injustices continue to plague American society centuries later, some professional athletes have started taking a knee during the anthem in a silent but respectful protest. Hopefully someday American society will achieve a point where the lyrics of The Star-Spangled Banner ring true for everyone.
Best National Anthem Performances Of All Time
What did you think about our list of the Best National Anthem Performances Of All Time? Did we leave out any or your favorites? Does Jimi Hendrix deserve to have a spot on this list even though he used his guitar to “sing” the anthem, not his voice? Please let us know in the comments.