Jonathan Henley mug

Jonathan Henley

It’s no great surprise that the Super Bowl Halftime Show has gotten mostly bad reviews. With the way the Super Bowl game is over-hyped, nobody should be shocked that the halftime show is equally over-hyped. I would add that the Super Bowl singing of the National Anthem is also over-hyped. The expectations engendered by that level of hype are almost impossible to live up to. As with so many things in life, our evaluations of things begin at the level of our expectations. With such massive expectations, the temptation to overdo it is almost irresistible.

The National Anthem, for example, has always been particularly dangerous for performers. I have pet peeves about the performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” most notably when performers think the song is about them. Instead of making me feel the music, they make me endure their egos with dramatic bends of the notes, ridiculous orchestrations, overly dramatized pacing, and sappy sentimentality that highlights, not the song, but the singer.

That’s why, among my all-time favorite performances of the National Anthem, were John Denver and Huey Lewis and the News. Both versions were the artists at their best. John Denver just walked out to the microphone in the Dodger Stadium outfield, waved at the cheering crowd, took all of one minute, 10 seconds to sing the traditional first verse, waved at the ecstatic crowd, then walked off. It was cool to me because he just sang the song. Years later, I saw Huey Lewis and the News do something similar. They stood around the microphone, Huey blew a note on a pitch pipe, the guys sang the song a cappella with really cool barbershop harmonies at a reasonable clip, and a minute and a half later waved at the elated crowd and walked off. In both cases, the artists brought their least insecure, most authentic styles to a song that is intended to be simple to sing. Of course, those versions weren’t at the Super Bowl, but had they been I think the artists would have turned in the exact same performance.

But to be fair, there is one time when a musical performance at the Super Bowl lived up to the expectations. At the Super Bowl back in 1991, at the height of the Gulf War, Whitney Houston sang the song as only she could. Her version, with the additional orchestrations from the Florida Orchestra, was still not overblown. She sang the song, only adding simple embellishments at appropriate times, with momentum and energy, a gently syncopated rhythm, and in a key that highlighted how great her voice was without any histrionics begging for attention. But then, at that last line that proclaims that the star-spangled banner still waves, she changed the rhythm putting the syllables squarely on the beat and, with her arms extended, seemingly invited the Tampa Stadium crowd to sing with her — but she really invited all of us. It was overwhelming to watch. The point here is that even Whitney Houston kept it elegant and simple — if you ain’t Whitney Houston, sing the song then sit down. Few people have the presence to live up to those expectations without looking silly. The Super Bowl has a way of creating overblown expectations.

So I don’t blame Adam Levine for looking like a clown last Sunday. His choices were to let the music be the music or to try and out-produce and give in to the temptation of excess. The Super Bowl just forces that choice. The halftime acts and National Anthem singers who did it best were the ones who didn’t take themselves too seriously.

News Herald Correspondent Jonathan Henley is a United Methodist pastor, former host of Road Signs radio show, and a music fan. He writes a weekly column for The News Herald. Contact him at roadsignsradio@gmail.com.

Get today’s top stories right in your inbox. Sign up for our daily newsletter.