Gladys Knight sang the National Anthem so exquisitely that for millions of non-New Englanders (including this one), she was the highlight of the Super Bowl.
Knight looked and sounded amazing, and her presence heightened the aura of the NFL, which — despite this season’s robust image and ratings comeback after years of sharp decline — continues to have its share of significant p.r. issues.
The presence of an eminence such as Knight as opposed to a hottest-pop-star-du-jour type typically elevates any proceeding. Staying power garners respect under most circumstances. In this case, it took confidence and even courage for Knight to sing the anthem. It was a gig fraught with controversy in light of the NFL’s reaction to former San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s bold “taking a knee” during the anthem to protest police brutality. That action is widely viewed as the reason he’s now an unemployed NFL quarterback, and his supporters flocked to social media to call out any entertainers considering Super Bowl participation.
Knight refused to be cowered. “I am here today and on Sunday, Feb. 3, to give the anthem back its voice,” she said in a statement to Variety when her participation was revealed, “to stand for that historic choice of words, the way it unites us when we hear it and to free it from the same prejudices and struggles I have fought long and hard for all my life, from walking back hallways, from marching with our social leaders, from using my voice for good. I have been in the forefront of this battle longer than most of those voicing their opinions to win the right to sing our country’s anthem on a stage as large as the Super Bowl LIII.”
Articulation of a reality that gives Knight a moral authority on the matter. “I am proud to use my voice to unite and represent our country in my hometown of Atlanta,” she wrote in an additional release. “The NFL recently announced their new social justice platform Inspire Change, and I am honored to be a part of its inaugural year.”
How to visually project that pride and surety in front of an audience of millions? One can only imagine that tremendous thought went into Knight’s choice of outfits — a crisp white dress with dramatic hem-length sleeves and jeweled yoke, accessorized with just the right amount of sparkle — a thin crystal headband fastening her hair and glittering silver booties. Fashion without folly, powerful enough to command the football-stadium stage; intimate enough to express the real woman beneath the performer. It was, after all, a real dress: Michael Kors, resort 2019.
Whether intended or not, it felt symbolic. Call it the HRC effect. Ever since Hillary Clinton wore a white Ralph Lauren pantsuit to accept the Democratic presidential nomination, and another to Donald Trump’s inauguration, much has been read between the seams whenever a prominent woman makes a high-profile appearance dressed in white. Often these wardrobe choices have been equated with a feminist stance, based on the preference for white among early 20th-century suffragettes. Yet white has other meanings — purity, refinement. serenity, simplicity. There’s also a power to its starkness. In her bright white, clean-lined dress, Knight radiated elegant authority.
And it gets better. A phone call to Michael Kors was intended to ascertain what Knight’s wardrobe parameters were. Only he didn’t have a clue, because Knight bought the dress off the rack at Neiman Marcus. Kors found out she planned to wear it about 10 days ago, when he saw her in concert in Florida and went backstage after the show. “She kind of sideswiped me and said, ‘You know, I’m wearing your dress to the Super Bowl,’” he recalled.
Kors called the look one of “dramatic simplicity,” and noted the self-assurance required to wear a self-selected, off-the-rack dress when performing before what must have been the biggest audience of Knight’s long career. “She did not have 35 stylists telling her want to wear,” he said. “This is a woman having an occasion [to dress for], knowing herself and what’s right for herself and the occasion.”
As Knight saw it, the occasion called not for cheesy stage glitz, but chic dignity via a fashion look that would be visible to the upper decks while telegraphing her stated intent. She viewed singing the anthem as something important and serious, and her choice of dress reflected that. Looking as she did, singing that song so gloriously, she appealed to our better natures — let those who would criticize her for appearing at the NFL’s grandest event open their minds to her “why”; similarly, let those who have castigated Kaepernick open theirs to his message.
Knight’s fabulous performance at the Super Bowl didn’t erase racial tensions from American society — would that it were so. But her presence and her majestic rendition of the National Anthem sent a message of tolerance, determination and authority. She looked the part.