t's all but official: Alicia Keys will perform "The Star-Spangled Banner" at this year's Super Bowl XLVIII in New Orleans. The "If I Ain't Got You" songstress is joining quite the pantheon of music greats — Aretha Franklin, Luther Vandross, and Mariah Carey have all been tapped in the past — to perform one of the most challenging, taxing pieces of vocal gymnastics in front of over 100 million viewers worldwide. Will she mangle the words like Christina Aguilera did in 2011? Or will she join our definitive, non-arguable, and absolutely infallible list of the 10 best national anthem renditions in Super Bowl history? A few ground rules before we get into it:
1. We're only going back to 1990 here. If you'd like to make a compelling case for Barry Manilow's rendition from 1984, I encourage you to do so.
2. This list is perfect.
10. Vanessa Williams, 1996
All-white pantsuit alert (the first of many). The former Miss America is overpowered by the band at times, but it's a solid effort overall. Nothing too special here. It'd work as the closing credits to a Disney movie. Let's move on.
Arbitrary diva rating: 74.5 percent
9. Mariah Carey, 2002
Post 9/11. The stakes couldn't have been higher. But Mariah, for whatever reason, was surprisingly restrained. See how she uses the mic stand as a crutch? (Figuratively not literally.) Something's off. She gets bonus points for nailing the high note ("…o'er the land of the freeeeeeee…") with the high-pitch dog whistle thing that only Mariah's capable of. Things get awkward again at the 2:30 mark when she stretches out both arms.
Arbitrary diva rating: 84 percent. Inordinately low for Mariah, who most certainly was not on fire.
7/8. Carrie Underwood, 2010 (tie)
All-white pantsuit alert number two. There's no backing band, which doesn't work in Underwood's favor. You can hear her straining to get some power behind her notes, and her voice sounds thin at times. Unlike everyone else on this list, she holds her "free" at the end of "…o'er the land of the free." What is this, American Idol tryouts? Just kidding. Great job.
Arbitrary diva rating: 76 percent
7/8. Beyoncé, 2004 (tie)
All-white pantsuit alert number three. This was a little slow for us. Plodding, even. B gets sassy at the 2:00 mark with a nice little ponytail whip, but that's about it in terms of her jelly, which we were ready for but never received. High notes showed a little too much restraint. Maybe she'll make up for it at the Super Bowl halftime show this year.
Arbitrary diva rating: 93 percent, but only because it's Beyoncé
6. Dixie Chicks, 2003
Great harmonies. Straightforward. Played to their strengths. Gets a little wobbly at the 1:25 mark, but otherwise this was a perfectly fine, really enjoyable rendition. Even George Dubya probably loved it.
Arbitrary diva rating: Between the three of them, a combined score of 174.5
5. Jordin Sparks, 2008
Sparks easily has the best "…and the rocket's red glare!" on the list (after number one, of course). She can belt. The trail-off at the end of "…the land of the free"? Tingle-inducing.
Arbitrary diva rating: 89 percent. Freeze it between 0:43 and 0:44 and you'll agree.
4. Cher, 1999
Cher can sing? Holy crap, Cher can sing! This was great. No complaints about Cher. The interpretive dancers were kind of weird, though. The Week's multimedia editor Lauren Hansen nails it: "Cher was surprisingly impressive, but like Mike Bloomberg with Lydia Callis, her spotlight was stolen."
Arbitrary diva rating: 90.4 percent
3. Jennifer Hudson, 2009
The Dreamgirls star gets the best of Beyoncé again… and it isn't even close. The "wow" factor? Check. Seizing the moment? Double check. The viewer's complete inability to look at anything else going on? Check, check, and check. "The Star-Spangled Banner" is about America with a capital A, and Hudson does the most American thing possible here: She makes it hers.
Arbitrary diva rating: 99.999999999 percent
2. Luther Vandross, 1997
Oh my. Put the kids to bed. This is the second sexiest rendition of the national anthem ever, after Marvin Gaye's baby-maker at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game. The best part here is the Packers' sideline has absolutely no idea what to do with their hands (1:10ish).
Arbitrary diva rating: N/A
1. Whitney Houston, 1991
Effortless. That track suit. The headband. The little lip tremble at 0:51. The way she single-handedly overpowers the whole horn section with "…and the rocket's red glare…". From 1:50 onward, you want to pump your fist and high-five your neighbor. This is 'Murica. And it's perfect.
Arbitrary diva rating: 100 percent
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- Why is American internet so slow?
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- Don't worry: World War III will almost certainly never happen
- What the collapse of the Ming Dynasty can tell us about American decline
- 4 life hacks from ancient philosophers that will make you happier
- 22 TV shows to watch in 2014
- The Daily Show explains Hamid Karzai's 'Afghan Hustle'
- Russia's Ukraine invasion is a moral crisis
- The end of academic freedom?
- Jimmy Fallon switches mouths with Tina Fey on The Tonight Show, and it's terrifying
Subscribe to the Week