Independence Day has come and gone, and the fireworks have faded away (for those of you lucky enough to have fireworks this year, that is). And once again, something heavy weighs on my mind, as it usually does around this time of year. Most of the time I keep it to myself, but they say confession is good for the soul and even better for blog traffic, so I might as well spill.
Here it is: I am not a big fan of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Okay, calm down. Before you start filling up the comment box with lots of angry ranting about how I'm a terrible American and a traitor to my country and how I should probably go to Iran or China to see if I like their national anthems better, let's get one thing straight. It is the National Anthem, and I respect that. When it's played, I rise and honor the flag. I esteem it as a symbol of my country, and of all those who give of themselves to help make that country a better place.
But on a strict musical level, it doesn't do much for me. The tune is heavy, plodding, and it doesn't flow very well. The music, of course, was not originally composed for the Frances Scott Key poem which forms the lyrics but was borrowed from the anthem for the Anacreontic Society. This London gentlemen's club was ostensibly devoted to music appreciation but, like most exclusively male institutions, was really about hanging out together and consuming large quantities of alcohol. That's the first problem: the song was written for drunk people. Drunk singing has little to do with quality and much to do with being as loud and obnoxious as possible. This is the reason why they don't play “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” until the seventh-inning stretch: they need to give the spectators time to have several beers and get into the proper frame of mind and voice to do the song justice.
And speaking of doing songs justice, that's the second problem: “The Star-Spangled Banner” is virtually impossible to sing well, at least for a soloist. The range of the song is all over the place, darting back and forth on the scale like a shuttle-runner after three espressos. Then there's the lyrics. They're nice lyrics, commemorating a historic battle in a war that helped solidify the United States' role as a strong, independent nation. But they also contain a lot of multisyllabic, purple-prosey phrases that are pretty easy to mix up, especially if you're nervous--say, from singing in front of a crowd of 30,000 people, many of whom will burn you in effigy if you so much as stumble over a single word. You can practically see the panic on some singers' faces as they struggle to remember the next line without messing up the current one (“Is the next part the 'twilight's last gleaming' bit or 'gallantly streaming' one? Help!”).
Most popular singers try to put their own stamp on the song, usually by cramming as many extra notes as possible into the tune. This technique was pioneered by the late Whitney Houston, whose gift for overblown melisma was such that she was capable of turning “I” into a three-syllable word. I guess this is supposed to make the anthem sound soulful and heartfelt. Usually it just sounds like the singer is riding in the bed of an old 1970s pickup truck over three miles of bumpy road. (“Aaaaand the roOOoocket's reeeEEEEeeeed glAAAAaaaaAAAAARe....”) Inevitably they end up overshooting the high notes, thinking that they're saying “hey, look at what a fabulous range I have!” but it comes out sounding like “let's make this part even more painful to listen to!”
The song that really gets me into a noble, patriotic, proud-to-be-an-American mood is “America the Beautiful,” which I find more stirring, more graceful and more...well, anthemic than the National Anthem. There's something about the images of natural beauty and human ideals in the lyrics that hits me right where I live (since 9/11, I haven't been able to hear the verse “thine alabaster cities gleam undimmed by human tears” without crying). If I had my druthers, that's the song I would hear right before baseball games and fireworks displays. But it's not my call. So I will continue to rise, place one hand over my heart, and occasionally sing along quietly whenever “The Star-Spangled Banner” plays. And wince every time the singer goes flat on “the land of the free.”