On Mickey Guyton Performing National Anthem at the Super Bowl

Mickey Guyton has been chosen as the artist to perform the National Anthem at the 2022 Super Bowl on Sunday, February 13th, and it most certainly will be a big moment for Mickey Guyton, and for country music.

Not all National Anthem performances are built the same, even at the Super Bowl. When Eric Church performed the ceremonial duty in 2021 with Jazmine Sullivan, he was already a well-established country music superstar, selling out arenas, and winning the CMA’s Entertainer of the Year. When other country artists—such as Garth Brooks in 1993—performed the National Anthem duties, they were also at the height of the commercial powers and popularity, meaning the upside potential for them was limited.

But when Mickey Guyton takes to the field to perform Sunday, many, if not most of the millions of people who will be watching will have never heard of Mickey Guyton before. This will be her opportunity of a lifetime to leave a lasting impression, and one of those impressions that can enshrine an artist in the pantheon of popular culture—a career moment that can define her legacy moving forward, and forevermore.

This isn’t hyperbole. We have seen this with National Anthem performances previously, and specifically at the Super Bowl. The intersectionality between sports and music creates a unique opportunity. That is why despite the somewhat archaic lyrical style of “The Star Spangled Banner,” and how the ceremonial singing of it may feel perfunctory to some, from a musical standpoint, National Anthem performances remain an important institution in music, beyond the patriotic implications.

That doesn’t mean that Mickey Guyton hasn’t been afforded other opportunities on the national stage, and specifically as a National Anthem singer. She has proven herself in that role before, just never to such a large audience. In fact, over the last couple of years, arguably no other artist has been afforded as many of these big national performance opportunities as Mickey Guyton.

In 2021 alone, Mickey Guyton performed the National Anthem as part of the National Memorial Day Concert in May, where she knocked it out of the park. On the 2021 ACM Awards in April, Guyton not only performed, she also hosted the show. She also performed on the delayed Grammy Awards in March, the CMT Awards in June, the CMA’s nationally-televised “Summer Jam” in July, the ACM’s Party for a Cause in August, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction ceremony in October, the CMT Artist of the Year presentation in October, the CMA Awards in November, the American Music Awards also in November, as well as the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in late November.

In short, whenever there was a nationally-televised musical event in 2021—country music or otherwise—Mickey Guyton performed more often than not, and often in a prime spot, and to a disproportional degree to her fellow mainstream country music contemporaries. Now that country music finally has a black female performer with mainstream impact, the doors have opened for Mickey Guyton.

And if you were to pay attention to music only through the press, you would conclude that Mickey Guyton was one of the biggest artists in all of country music in 2022. CMT named Guyton their “Breakout Artist of the Year.” Features in HuffPost, The New York Times, NPR, and others celebrates Mikey Guyton’s long-awaited breakout success. Nashville Scene declared Guyton as one of the defining forces in country music in 2021 in their end of year wrap, saying “In many ways, Guyton had the triumphant year she should have had a decade ago, finally earning mainstream attention that matches her long-standing critical acclaim.”

And of course, with all this praise also came award nominations. Guyton’s “Black Like Me” was nominated for Best Country Solo Performance at the 2020 Grammy Awards. In 2021, Guyton was nominated for both the CMAs and ACMs Best New Artist trophy. And Guyton is nominated for three Grammy Awards for 2022, including Best Country Album for her debut record Remember Her Name released on September 24th, 2021.

Taking all the performances, all the press praise, and all the nominations into account, one could only conclude that Mickey Guyton was one of the biggest artists in country music in 2021. But in truth when Remember Her Name was released in September, sales and reception for the record were downright abysmal. All that Mickey Guyton could muster was debuting at #47 on the country albums chart, with only 2,800 in actual album sales, and 5,007 in total sales, downloads, and streaming equivalents. The next week, Remember Her Name dropped out of the Top 100 in country entirely, and never recovered.

There is no way to sugar coat it. Mickey Guyton’s debut album was a colossal flop, so much so that despite all the criticism Capitol Nashville received for delaying her debut album release for so long, perhaps they knew something all the critics didn’t—that releasing an album from Mickey Guyton would do more to expose her, as opposed to giving her the exposure so many believed she deserved. The reception for Remember Her Name was so bad, it was a story unto itself, but one the press (including Saving Country Music), was reluctant to tell, in fear of it being misconstrued as an attack, or a rebuke, or as often the case today, racist.

So how do we square the incredible reception Mickey Guyton received for Remember Her Name, with the lack of follow through with the public at large? Was it because radio still did not warm to Mickey Guyton? Artists like Kacey Musgraves and Tyler Childers haven’t received any significant country radio play either, and yet still put up strong sales and streaming numbers, even with less mainstream exposure as Mickey Guyton. Is it due to racism in country music? Since so many of Guyton’s performance opportunities have come through non-country moments (Grammy Awards, AMA’s, National Memorial Day Concert, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, etc.), this doesn’t make 100% sense either.

Radio play most certainly would have helped Mickey Guyton, and some lingering racism within the ranks of country fans is likely factor as well. But neither of these things can account for the sales and streaming discrepancy solely, even from the most cynical point of view.

The case of Mickey Guyton, and the gulf between the attention she’s received from the industry, and the real and measurable traction she has not received from fans necessitates us to ask hard questions, like despite how much the press who was rooting for Guyton and showered her with vociferous praise, maybe the music of Mickey Guyton and Remember Her Name was just too pop for country, yet too country for pop, while the leaning on identitarian themes won over critics, but not consumers. Maybe Mickey Guyton’s songs were too rich, too obvious to resonate beyond media think pieces.

If there is any lesson to be learned from the Mickey Guyton example, it is that exposure is not necessarily the panacea to building measurable support beneath an artist. If it was, Mickey Guyton would be on the same level as Morgan Wallen. Instead, she’s not even on the same level of some independently-signed Americana artist who’ve never had a nationally-televised opportunity, an award nomination, or even a notion of the degree of press praise Mickey Guyton has received. Meanwhile, who were the artists who could have benefited more from the exposure Mickey Guyton received because they had music with proven resonance, but were ignored?

At some point, the music must stick in the firmament of fans for it to find traction among the American public, whether that is within country fandom, or if it branches out beyond country, like the music of Kacey Musgraves and Sturgill Simpson has seen. Another factor rarely broached is how important touring is to building those personal connections with fans, sometimes much more so than televised opportunities. And pointing out that music is not resonating shouldn’t be considered an attack, but and honest and critical assessment of the situation so improvement can be fostered in the future.

Though it’s easy to discount Mickey Guyton receiving the opportunity to perform the National Anthem at the 2022 Super Bowl as “It’s only because she’s Black,” the situation is much more complex than that. First, Mickey Guyton has proven herself an excellent National Anthem singer in the opportunities she’s received in the past. Mickey Guyton has earned this opportunity on her own merit as a singer and performer. Even her critics can’t (or shouldn’t) discount Guyton’s singing ability. The NFL sought someone who could turn in an inspirational performance beyond all of the political, cultural, musical, or commercial implications, and found a great candidate in Mickey Guyton.

And though ample Black singers have received the opportunity to sing the National Anthem at the Super Bowl in the past, there has never been one from the country music community. Simply from the image of Mickey Guyton—a country music performer—singing the National Anthem for a massive audience, it will break through false narratives that Black people can’t perform country music. It will also break through false notions that Black people can’t listen to country music. And it will also break through the equally-damaging stigma often perpetrated by the media that Black performers aren’t being given opportunities in country music, because nobody has received more opportunities in the last year than Mickey Guyton.

And if Guyton knocks her performance out of the park, it will likely result in a sales/streaming boost for her in the short term. But it won’t be the wide, resounding moment for her music it might have been, because as has already been proven with previous opportunities, people like the idea of Mickey Guyton and a black woman in country music more than they like the music she turned in with Remember Her Name. And as soon as we’re honest with ourselves about that assessment, Mickey Guyton can get to work on cultivating music that will truly resonate with the public, as opposed to solely being propped up by the press and performance opportunities. Only then will Micky Guyton find the success in country music that will have a greater impact, and truly help to erode country’s racial barriers.

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