In 1993, Garth Brooks and the Super Bowl would clash. It was like King Kong vs. Godzilla, with these two titans of American culture squaring off for all time. And ultimately, one side had to win. Country History X returns with a deep dive into this historic moment.
• The Country History X Podcast looks to tell the history of country music, one story at a time. It primarily lives here on Saving Country Music, on YouTube (see below and subscribe), and is also available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Anchor, and most anywhere else podcasts can be found.
• A full transcript of the episode, as well as sources for the story can be found below.
• Correction: In the audio, it incorrectly states that the flyover during the National Anthem was performed by F-15, when it was actually performed by F-18’s.
Other Country History X Episodes:
Episode #12: Did Vern Gosdin Really Try to Murder His Producer?
Episode #11: The Lost Bloodline of Hank Williams, and the Search for Hank IV
Episode #10: Marty Robbins Saves Life of NASCAR’s Richard Childress
Episode #9: Country Music’s Most Important Artifact
Episode #8: Randy Travis Versus Lib Hatcher
You probably don’t need me to tell you that there’s just about no bigger sporting or media event in the entire world than the National Football League’s annual Super Bowl, or how there has never been a bigger or more commercially successful artist in the history of country music than Garth Brooks. In fact, aside from Elvis and The Beatles, nobody has been bigger in American music than Garth Brooks, period. And as time goes on and Garth remains active, he continues to eclipse the records of all previous musical legends and ensconce himself on the top of the heap.
In 1993, at both the height of Garth Brooks’s powers, and the national popularity of the Super Bowl, these two titans of American culture would clash, and in a way that would have reverberative repercussions on the entirety of popular culture and live music performance in the coming years. It was like King Kong vs. Godzilla, like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning squaring off for all time. And ultimately, one side had to win.
This is the story of Garth Brooks versus The Super Bowl.
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I’ll spare you the long-winded version of the Garth Brooks origin story for another time, since it’s not particularly relevant to this topic. But rest assured, in 1993, Garth Brooks was as big as anybody in entertainment, and he knew it.
Originally part of country music’s “Class of ’89” with Alan Jackson, Travis Tritt, and Clint Black, this foursome would rocket country music from a depreciating American music genre in the popular music sphere that was synonymous with old-timey “truck broke down and dog died” hillbilly music into a commercial sensation the likes country music had never seen before, with even suburban housewives running around in Stetson hats and printed Western shirts, learning how to line dance in their local honky tonks. Alan Jackson, Travis Tritt, and Clint Black were all massive superstars, but nobody was in the stratosphere of Garth Brooks.
And of course, with that amount of widespread popularity also came ample condemnation. To grandma and grandpa back home, Garth Brooks wasn’t country. He was some sort of version of Southern pop, and all the attention and interlopers he was bringing to country was a problem, not a solution to the genre’s popularity woes. Garth’s ostentatious attitude was especially distasteful to many established country fans.
A few months after Garth’s Super Bowl stunt in 1993, he would upset both the country music and football Gods again by flying over the crowd at the old Texas Stadium where the Dallas Cowboys used to play suspended on wires like he was Sandy Duncan playing Peter Pan. It was part of a televised concert special that would later air on NBC. And of course seven years later, a bored Garth Brooks would give birth to the regrettable Chris Gaines—a sort of emo pop star alter ego of Garth that got mothballed along with a proposed motion picture when public sentiment on the side project went south.
But before all of these shenanigans, there was the 1993 Super Bowl, where Garth Brooks was tasked with singing the National Anthem before the start of the game. At that time, the Super Bowl halftime show wasn’t as big of a sensational event as it is today. But the National Anthem most certainly was. It was one of the most important singing performances all year in the United States, and was reserved for the absolute biggest superstars of the era, which in 1993, Garth Brooks most certainly was.
The other backdrop of the Garth Brooks versus the Super Bowl showdown was the racial tension that existed in the United States at the time. After a jury had acquitted four Los Angeles police officers in the videotaped beating of Rodney King on April 29th, 1992, riots broke out across parts of L.A. as the rest of the country looked on in horror. Fires, looting, 63 deaths, and over 2,300 injuries were attributed to the riots, while further images like the malicious beating of truck driver Reginald Denny frayed the edges of society even more.
Incidentally, the 1992 LA Riots transpired right as Garth Brooks and many others in the country music industry were in Los Angeles for the 1992 Academy of Country Music Awards, or ACMs. Garth recalls quote, “The night the riots hit we watched it all on TV on the bus leaving LA. And as you drove out of LA you could see the buildings on fire. It was pretty scary for all of us, especially as a bunch of guys from Oklahoma.” Unquote.
Motivated to do something about the racial tension and intolerance Garth Brooks was witnessing, he paired up with songwriter Stephanie Davis and composed a song called “We Shall Be Free,” which would ultimately be selected as the first single from Garth’s fourth album released in 1992 called The Chase.
Up until that point, every single one of the 13 singles Garth had released in his career had gone Top 10, with all but one going Top 3, including nine #1 singles. It was a streak for the ages. After “We Shall Be Free,” Garth Brooks landed another nine singles in the Top 10, including another five #1’s. But as for “We Shall Be Free?” Despite Garth’s best efforts, in never got farther than #12 in the charts, which was still not bad for most artists. But for Garth Brooks in 1992, it was tantamount to a flop.
The Gospel-esque song about a man who imagines a world without any Earthly oppression wasn’t necessarily bad. It was just considered too sappy by most of the audience with no subtlety, and was not especially well-suited for country or pop radio.
It would be the first of many songs Garth Brooks would release during his career in hopes of soothing social upheaval, including the song “People Loving People,” which was the first song he released after his quote/unquote retirement from performing from 2000 to 2014. “People Loving People” was meant to answer the rise of the Islamic terrorist group ISIS, which was disseminating videos of beheadings of captors at the time. Garth also released a song called “We Belong To Each Other” in the wake of the death of George Floyd in 2020, and the ensuing protests and riots that followed.
These songs weren’t Garth Brooks trying to commercially exploit current events, mostly because none of them were ever that commercially successful. It was more about Garth’s childlike belief that if he just wrote the right song, it could change the world. Instead, they just sort of fizzled, and have become the B-sides of his recording legacy.
But Garth Brooks really believed in the song “We Shall Be Free,” thinking that if it just was presented to the right audience, it really could make a difference in society, and soothe racial tensions. It wasn’t the song’s fault, he surmised. It was radio’s reluctance to serve it to the wide public that had resulted in its muted success. And so what better way to serve “We Shall Be Free” to the masses than to use the biggest media event in the entire world as your platform, that being The Super Bowl.
Now Garth Brooks had no contract or agreement to either perform “We Shall Be Free” as part of the 1993 Super Bowl presentation, nor were their any plans to broadcast the song’s video, which is a story all unto itself. When the video premiered on CMT in September of 1992, it stirred not just a little controversy.
Along with cameos from scores of topical celebrities at the time, including Jay Leno, Whoopi Goldberg, Elizabeth Taylor, Joan Rivers, Patrick Swayze, and football personalities such as Troy Aikman and John Elway, the video also included clips of flag burnings, cross burnings, the Ku Klux Klan, intravenous drug use, riots, bombings, war scenes, natural disasters, and other content certain people found questionable. Obviously, Garth wasn’t condoning these activities, they were there as illustrations. But many found the video triggering, and in poor taste.
That is why there was never any consideration by the the NFL, or the network airing the Super Bowl in 1993, NBC, to broadcast the “We Shall Be Free” video as part of the Super Bowl presentation. This was the biggest television audience in the world. The last thing they wanted to do was air something controversial. But Garth Brooks had other plans, and hatched a scheme of how he could use his celebrity, and his slot as the National Anthem performer, to force the hand of NBC and the NFL to air the controversial “We Shall Be Free” video during the Super Bowl presentation.
Out of nowhere, and a mere 45 minutes before Garth Brooks was supposed to stand at the 50 yard line and deliver the National Anthem, he pulled one of the most bold stunts in Super Bowl history. Holding his appearance over the head of NBC and the NFL like an anvil, Garth Brooks, making the demand that his “We Shall Be Free” video be played, walked out of the Rose Bowl stadium in Pasadena, California entirely, refusing to sing unless they aired his video.
Now as can be imagined, everything leading up to and during the Super Bowl is planned down to the very second, and every second with all the advertising revenue and sponsorships is worth tons of money. There was also supposed to be a choreographed flyover by five F-18 fighter jets from the USS Nimitz sitting off the coast of Los Angeles who needed to know the precise second the National Anthem performance would finish, so they wouldn’t fly over too soon or too late, and ruin the presentation. The Garth Brooks ultimatum sent NBC and the NFL scrambling.
Almost as if it was a hostage negotiation, producers tried to negotiate and rationalize with Garth as he remained offsite, explaining that there was no time budgeted for the video, and it would be impossible to make time for it at that late stage. But Garth held his ground, and the standoff continued. With 91 million people tuning in from all around the world for the Super Bowl presentation, they had no National Anthem performer as it stood, while many who were tuning in were expecting to see superstar Garth Brooks.
Even more alarming for the NFL and NBC, in previous years they had always required whomever sang the National Anthem to also pre-record a performance so that just in case there was some technical issue, the song could still play, or in some cases, the performer could lip-sync to it. But Garth Brooks—knowing that he was planning to ambush the Super Bowl producers to air his video—refused to give them such a pre-taped recording.
This was the worst case scenario for Super Bowl organizers. An NBC producer spotted John Bon Jovi in the Super Bowl crowd, and began to prep him as a plan ‘B’ if they could not get Garth Brooks to return to the stadium to perform. Garth Brooks had NBC right where he wanted them, and the NFL could see that. So ultimately, the NFL did something completely unprecedented in Super Bowl history: They delayed the kickoff of the game to accommodate the airing of the Garth Brooks “We Shall Be Free” video.
Garth Brooks had won, and returned to the Rose Bowl stadium wearing a paint splashed printed shirt, and sung the Nation Anthem, with the F-15 flyover syncing up perfectly. And for many viewers at home, they were none the wiser of the controversy that had ensued behind-the-scenes.
But it wasn’t just NBC and the NFL that Garth Brooks defeated. Authenticity in nationally-televised live performances lost something as well. According to former NFL executive director Don Weiss in his book The Making of the Super Bowl: The Inside Story of the World’s Greatest Sporting Event, after the Garth Brooks incident in 1993, the NFL made it a requirement that all National Anthem singers make a pre-recorded version of their performances, and made the preferred method of delivering the performance be via lip sync.
Ricky Minor, the Super Bowl’s music director for many years said some years later about pre-recording tracks and lip syncing performances quote, “That’s the right way to do it. There’s too many variables to go live. I would never recommend any artist go live, because the slightest glitch would devastate the performance.” Unquote.
Lip syncing the National Anthem at The Super Bowl had already resulted in some high profile controversies prior to the Garth Brooks incident. In 1991, Whitney Houston sang the Super Bowl National Anthem, and it was considered by some at the time to be one of the best Anthem performances ever. Then it was revealed the performance had been pre-recorded. In 2009, Jennifer Hudson sang the National Anthem months after members of her family had been killed. It was called one of the most inspiring performances of all time, until it was revealed later that she had lip synced as well, in part due to the requirement the NFL imposed after the Garth Brooks incident.
Lip syncing and backing track controversies also tainted other events of national importance in the coming years. Cello player Yo-Yo Ma and violinist Itzhak Perlman fake played to a pre-recorded track at President Obama’s first Inauguration in 2009. At Obama’s second inauguration in 2013, Beyonce lip-synced her performance of the National Anthem, and later admitted as much at an NFL press conference before she was set to deliver the National Anthem at the Super Bowl. But it is believed that she did sing the 2013 Super Bowl National Anthem live. After many years of the NFL’s policy to pre-record all National Anthem performances, they have returned to live renditions more recently, at least for the most part.
As for Garth Brooks, he says of the song “We Shall Be Free” quote, “‘We Shall Be Free’ is definitely and easily the most controversial song I have ever done. A song of love, a song of tolerance from someone who claims not to be a prophet but just an ordinary man. I never thought there would be any problems with this song. Sometimes the roads we take do not turn out to be the roads we envisioned them to be. All I can say about ‘We Shall Be Free’ is that I will stand by every line of this song as long as I live. I am very proud of it. And I am very proud of Stephanie Davis, the writer. I hope you enjoy it and see it for what it was meant to be.” Unquote.
Garth Brooks taking on the Super Bowl in 1993 is one of these moments in country music history that is often overlooked. Where some love to harp on the genre for being racially insensitive, this moment really is important to underscore. Country music’s biggest superstar in the prime of his career released a song about tolerance inspired by racial unrest, and then later held the NFL captive in a moment of defiance so it could be delivered to a massive audience.
The Garth Brooks Super Bowl moment also underscores the complicated persona of Garth. In one respect, the guy always needs to be the center of attention, and wants the world revolve around him, illustrated by thinking the Super Bowl could stop down to honor his request. But on the other hand, he really does have a sentimentality about certain things that truly seems sincere. Yes, Garth Brooks wants all the records, all the awards, all the attention, and all the money that he can attain. But he also has a child-like belief that he can change the world through song that he’s exercised on numerous occasions throughout his career.
Ultimately, Garth Brooks did not end racial tension in the United States with his Super Bowl stunt. He just made it less likely for his National Anthem-singing successors to perform the ceremonial duty live in subsequent years.
Meanwhile, the music of Garth Brooks sits in a similar paradox. Even though he was super popular during his heyday, Garth was a very polarizing figure to many traditional country fans during his era too. But as time has gone on, hindsight has reflected more favorably upon Garth’s output. As country music made an even more pronounced turn towards pop, rock, and even rap during Garth’s retirement years, reflecting back on the catalog of Garth Brooks now, he sounds unquestionably country, and perhaps even more neotraditional than many originally assessed. Then again, some of his hijinks still leave people with a sour taste in their mouths.
In 2017, while Garth Brooks was the reigning CMA Entertainer of the Year, he performed his song “Ask Me How I Know” to a pre-recorded vocal track on the CMA Awards. He lip synced it. And almost immediately after the performance, Garth rushed over to where the media was set up back stage, and fessed up to the ruse, as if that somehow made it okay, or exonerated him.
In a nutshell, that’s Garth Brooks. He has no problem lip syncing a live performance, and deceiving the public. But he also thinks it’s okay, as long as he explains to the public he deceived them. He cannot tell a lie, but he can perpetrate one if he feels it’s for the greater good. This is the eternal enigma of Garth.
Garth Brooks – The Garth Brooks Story – 1995
Garth Brooks – The Hits – transcription from liner notes – December 13th, 1994
Don Weiss – The Making of the Super Bowl : The Inside Story of the World’s Greatest Sporting Event – October 28th, 2002
MTV – Jennifer Hudson Lip Synced the Super Bowl Performance – February 2nd, 2009