Four Reasons “The Star-Spangled Banner” Shouldn’t Be the National Anthem (But Always Will Be)

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July 3 2014 11:58 AM

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“The Star-Spangled Banner” is militaristic, syntactically garbled, and impossible to sing. It’s perfect.

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What’s more, that trickiest note comes on the word “free,” and not only does freedom not come easy, but for many Americans disenfranchised or worse in the time of the song’s framing—for women, for instance, or for black people—it could not be had at all. Unintentionally, by placing the very utterance of that word “free” almost out of reach, “The Star-Spangled Banner” acts out the nation’s own utopian contradictions. And each time that cadence is reclaimed, especially by a woman or an African-American, it’s as if she is overcoming history. Hear Whitney Houston do it, for instance (in the only version to ever put the anthem on the Billboard charts), or the Dixie Chicks, or the reunited Destiny’s Child, and you can feel Martin Luther King’s arc of the universe bending toward justice with each embroidered note.

And it’s all the more graceful because it is in compound waltz time, 6/8, rather than 4/4, the forced march of most other national anthems. For such a testosterone-drunk country, you’ve got a pretty sissyish anthem here. And that is to your credit.

2) It’s militaristic. Absolutely it is. But consider the scene it sets—not vanquishing an enemy, but withstanding its onslaught and preserving the nation’s identity. The War of 1812 was not long after the Revolutionary War, after all, and what was at stake was the possibility that the British could reverse those gains and bring the American experiment to a premature end.

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Although today the “bombs bursting in air” bring to mind later American aggressions, such as Hiroshima or drone strikes, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is nothing like Algeria’s (understandably) anti-French “Quassaman,” which pledges to shed “streams of generous blood” with “the sounds of machine guns as our melody,” or the Italian anthem, which revels in burning out the heart of Austria, or Vietnam’s post-colonial declaration in song that “the path to glory is built by the bodies of our foes.”

Rather, as performance artist Laurie Anderson put it in a 1990 video spot, the lyrics of “The Star-Spangled Banner” add up to much less and much more: “Just a lot of questions—written during a fire. Things like ‘Hey, do you see anything over there?’ ‘I dunno, there’s a lot of smoke.’ ‘Say, isn’t that a flag?’ ‘Hmm, couldn’t say, really. It’s pretty early in the morning.’ ‘Hey, do you smell something burning?’ I mean, that’s the whole song.”

In the later verses no one sings, Key was more declarative, but in the version everyone knows, there is an inviting coyness: Oh, tell me, does that banner yet wave? The democratic impulse lies in that moment of exchange, when it’s left to the listener to affirm it, whether silently or, however imperfectly, however off-key, by participating.

In fact, rather than militaristic it might be more apt to call it athletic—for those of us who are music nerds rather than sports nuts, the drama at any major event is who’s going to sing the anthem (indeed, because games and matches and bouts just keep happening and happening, the answer is every singer you can think of, up to and including the Grateful Dead) and whether they will master the “Banner” or it will defeat them. The anthem is communal property, but all the great performers make it their own and then return it intact, with luck without letting it hit ground. Or perhaps best of all, like the crowd in Boston two days after the marathon bombing last year, sometimes we simply take it off the performer’s hands:

3) The words are incomprehensible. The way Key twisted his sentiments around the Anacreontic air, the phrases are full of half-thoughts interrupted by tangents that complete themselves three lines later. All the brain can make out in most of it is, “O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light, what blah blah blah blah gleaming? Blah blah blah stars, blah blah blah blah. Rockets’ red glare! Bombs bursting in air! Blah blah blah blah our flag was still there.” It’s like trying to follow the codpiece jokes in Shakespeare.

The advantage here—which would not apply to any of the other anthem candidates—is that this makes it open-endedly available to reinterpretation. This is the trick to all the embellishments singers make, which people like to complain about (and, granted, can be taken too far) but are where this particular anthem’s action truly is. It allowed Marvin Gaye in 1983 to transform it into a kind of “Sexual National Healing,” in my single favorite performance of it, or anything, ever. Even in the song’s early history, its mutability lured slavery abolitionists to rewrite it as “O say do you hear, at the dawn’s early light/ The shrieks of those bondsmen whose blood is now streaming?” and temperance moralists to inveigh, “O who has not seen by the dawn’s early light/ Some poor bloated drunkard to his home weakly reeling?”

Even musically, it’s been switched back and forth between 6/8 and 4/4 over the decades, its tempo has been slowed way down, and bits of melody have fallen out of it. When it was originally published, the opening words “O” and “say” were on the same, tonic note—how and when it acquired its current starting cadence, which makes it feel as if you begin it by stumbling down an inconveniently located stepladder, no one quite seems to know.

All of which prepared the way, of course, for Jimi Hendrix’s monumental “Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock, which whammy-barred the tune into bits and distortion-pedaled it over a cliff into a vortex of American paradoxes—first, African-American double consciousness as felt from within and prejudicially perceived from without (“two unreconciled strivings,” as W.E.B. Du Bois put it, “two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder”) and second, the ’60s counterculture’s love-hatred of the American ideal, which powered its own quixotic, hedonistic quests as much as the atrocities of the Vietnam War. Asked later if he had been attacking America, Hendrix replied he thought he’d done something “beautiful,” leaving unsaid that the two could be one and the same.

Hendrix’s coup rendered the song a sort of permanent anti-standard, a reversed-polarity twin to its daylight identity that in many ways overtakes it. As a result, in a way the most faithful version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” would be one sung by a Hispanic performance artist caked in baby powder and wearing a tutu—or at least by a band of Slovenian industrial-Goth satirists. Every rock or jazz guitarist (or even adventurous cellist) is bound to try to retrace Hendrix’s orbit at some point, as U2’s the Edge has been heard to do in concert and as the excellent Mary Halvorson recently did for the Smithsonian—and if he’s lucky, every youthful noise musician will someday find himself playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” on a four-stringed acoustic guitar as gorgeously wrongly as Bill Orcutt of the 1990s sonic-assault unit Harry Pussy does here:

As Orcutt explained to an interviewer, “I've been playing mostly patriotic songs, religious songs, show tunes, minstrel songs, cowboy songs, etc. Just whatever used up, worn-out American songs I can find. I like a nice worn-out song. The national anthem is kind of ground zero for that.”

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