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

Pop, jazz, and classical.
July 3 2014 11:58 AM

Proudly Hailed

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

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It’s truer than he knows: Used up from the instant of its making, unsingable and indecipherable, the national anthem was attracting deconstruction before that was even a concept. Hendrix’s rendition was anticipated in its philosophical essence and even its gestural particulars by the blind, enslaved musical teen prodigy Thomas Wiggins in his Civil War composition “The Battle Of Manassas”—which collaged together military and patriotic songs, the “Banner” prominent among them, and used bass-register tone clusters (decades before musical modernists supposedly invented them) to simulate cannon fire. It’s performed here by pianist Jeannette Fang, as part of the University of Michigan’s “Poets & Patriots” anthem project.

Or to put this whole argument another way: Mr. Key, you had me at “spangled.”

4) You’re stuck with it. The only thing worse than having “The Star-Spangled Banner” as your national anthem is A) almost any other national anthem and B) absolutely everything you would have to do to change it. Take it from Canada, where the government attempted to edit a few words in 2010 and was forced to back off. Even though it’s ever-evolving, each case of messing around with “The Star-Spangled Banner” attracts a backlash before it is either forgotten or assimilated: Jose Feliciano’s pre-Hendrix attempt to folk-rock it up in 1968 nearly ruined his career, the guy who booked Marvin Gaye in 1983 thought he was going to be fired, and recently the Colorado R&B singer René Marie faced a volley of questions and criticism when she sang the anthem quite beautifully at a Denver civic event but substituted in the lyrics to “Lift Every Voice and Sing”:

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Most ominously, last year—provoked by the usual opinion-piece routine of questioning the “Banner” and a joke by the bland comedian Daniel Tosh that the anthem “blows” and “nobody has it on their iPod”—the New Jersey band Madison Rising put out its own excruciatingly earnest version and “challenged” the public to prove its patriotism by YouTube-viewing it 5 million times. Madison Rising sounds basically like Creed with even less of a sense of humor, and declares that its mission is “to make really great pro-American, pro-constitutional and patriotic rock music.” So these are the clodhoppers you will have to debate if you want to alter the status of the anthem. There is no way it could be worth it.

Instead, simply do as Americans have done for generations and treat your song of choice as if it were the national anthem. Your country is too capacious, too plentifully anthemic at its heart, to subsist on the “Banner” alone. Sing your personal anthem wherever you please, whether it’s the utterly singular national song of Mauritania or it’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.”

In my case, based on my years in Montreal, I like to lay claim to the unofficial Quebec anthem, “Gens du pays,” by the 1970s nationalist chanteur Gilles Vigneault. Its refrain expresses the beautiful thought, “People of this country, it’s our turn to let ourselves speak of love,” and it is so cherished there that people sing it to each other at parties instead of “Happy Birthday.” As well, I am yoked to that old socialist chestnut “The Internationale” as hopelessly as any reprobate Lost Causer is wedded to “Dixie”—it can make me weep even in its traditional, excessively King James-esque lyrics, but especially in Billy Bragg’s revisionist 1990s rewrite, done at Pete Seeger’s request:

Along with “Lift Every Voice,” this “Internationale” is the rare anthem that dares question what the stock catchwords of “liberty” and “freedom” actually mean—“merely privilege extended,” Bragg warns, “unless enjoyed by one and all.” Yet I’d venture that all those subversive or over-literal, under- or oversung, misremembered or otherwise mangled adaptations of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” with their lovers and their haters, stage an equally dynamic struggle over those same ideas, in their own branching, secret language, version by version, year after year.

And if they still rub you the wrong way, take the advice of the oldest, most venerable American anthem of all: Stick a feather in your cap, and call it macaroni.

Update, July 8, 2014: This piece is particularly indebted for historical information and insights to University of Michigan professor Mark Clague and the Star-Spangled Music Foundation, as well as to This Land That I Love by John Shaw. These resources were linked to in the original version of the article, but were not mentioned by name.

Carl Wilson is Slates music critic. 

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