The Anthem After Marvin

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There's Marvin Gaye's 1983 interpretation of "The Star-Spangled Banner," and then there's everything else. Marvin made the song his own, itself a daring act, and infused it with the bittersweet quality we associate with the blues or the pleading soul ballad—not the aural equivalent of colors over a battlefield. 

Gaye eased into, toying with the lyric as if trying to test its resolve or dispel any lingering suspicions. It's a process, a loping, canny performance that goes out to everyone who has ever balked at removing his cap during the anthem. It's hard to call it definitive, though. If anything, it's a radical diversion, a sharp departure from what Whitney Houston was trying for. Whitney made that song everything it could be. Marvin Gaye transformed it utterly.

It's only fitting that Marvin Gaye's version came at the NBA All-Star Game, and Houston's at the Super Bowl. Without climbing down into the abyss of trans-sport comparison, the NBA is where culture gets twisted up and reconstructed through sport. The question is, has there ever been another artist who saw the ASG as an opportunity to riff on "The Star-Spangled Banner," or even subject it to any kind of originality?

The year after Marvin, the Temptations—another former Motown act—took a crack at it. Not much here. 

By this point, they were already an oldies act, miles away Puzzle People. It's deep, for real, but only in the most literal sense.

One of my favorite games to play is to look at players' faces during the obligatory anthem close-ups and try to figure out if they are moved, bored, or nervous. During the playoffs, you have to figure these emotions get all tangled up together. But the All-Star Game is so many things to so many people, who knows what these dudes alone? This along makes 1991's Branford Marsalis-Bruce Hornsby contribution a good one—has Barkley ever looked more inscrutable?—but it's also a sort-of-churchy, sort-of-Windham Hill sound that tries something new. 

Maybe it decides to gloss the surface of the song, to let it float there as a proposition rather than engaging it like Gaye did. Still, worth a listen, and certainly wins points for originality.

Patti LaBelle sang it at the All-Star Game in 2005, but the video available all stinks. So as a super-secret bonus cut, please enjoy her belting out the anthem at Allen Iverson's Celebrity Softball Game in 2007. 

It's outdoors in Bowie, Maryland, with less-than-optimal acoustics, but LaBelle just kills it. There's so much power and joy in her voice, such a sense of abandon for a song that lends itself to fussiness, that it's almost like she's working with an entirely different musical text—Marvin's paradox resolved once and for all. Considering the context, I don't think she's putting anyone on.

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