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.

Whitney Houston
Whitney Houston sings the national anthem before the New York Giants take on the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXV at Tampa Stadium on Jan. 27, 1991 in Tampa, Florida.

Photo by George Rose/Getty Images

With the World Cup pitting nations head to head, day after day, plus July Fourth coming on Friday, the air this week is fairly clogged with national anthems—a haze of plodding beats barely enlivened by gratuitous drumrolls, a commotion of striving-skyward horns, an arid paucity of memorable hooks, a smog of bleating chauvinistic choruses hoarsely sung.

Most people don’t contemplate these aberrations in musical taste often, except when occasions like the cup or the Olympics come around. This year, however, there’s an extra reason to reflect on the stately bars that bind us: Every time you hear “The Star-Spangled Banner” over the next few days, its triumphal strains will be meta-triumphal, touting not only the 238-year history of American nationhood but the “Banner’s” own bicentennial.

Francis Scott Key wrote the lyrics (not the music, about which more in a bit) in 1814, and the anniversary is being fanfared with a concert Thursday at the Library of Congress, books, biographies, documentaries, academic projects, and an exhibit and events at the Smithsonian, with more to come (particularly in Maryland, the site of its composition in the midst of the War of 1812) closer to the anthem’s actual Sept. 14 birthday.

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The wrinkle in this ballyhoo is that a lot of the country isn’t convinced “The Star-Spangled Banner” is anything to celebrate. For decades people have argued that the anthem, which was made semi-official by Woodrow Wilson mid-World War I and then certified by Congress and Herbert Hoover in 1931 due to a campaign by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, is too militaristic to speak to the better angels of the contemporary American character. Or at least that, with its brain-hurting syntax and larynx-bruising octave-and-a-half range, it’s too damn hard to learn and to sing.

Why not, they say, replace it with friendlier fare like “America the Beautiful,” Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” or even Lee Greenwood’s country-and-western patriot standard “God Bless the USA” (released in the Reagan ’80s, but widely revived after 9/11, with covers not only by multiple American Idol contestants but also by Beyoncé)? Then there is the “Negro national anthem,” James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” whose adoption would be a kind of musical reparations program, and provide an excuse to play this Ray Charles version indefinitely (though that would work for “America the Beautiful,” too).

I take a personal interest here, as a music critic but also as a Canadian. Your anthem is originally about being at war with us (Key converted from isolationism after we burned down the White House), and yet I am often told by American friends that they secretly envy my country’s national song—the only other anthem that many Americans consciously know, thanks to hockey and baseball games. It’s true that “O Canada,” sung across the Great White North on Tuesday for Canada Day, has many strengths: It’s simple, bilingual from its origins (still a sore point in America) and relatively noncombative (we perpetually “stand on guard,” mostly against you lot, but no explosives are explicitly detonated), and it’s over lickety-split. Best, it inspires a mildly smug sense of attachment, the most Canadian feeling there is.

But it has its issues, too, so just like Americans, Australians (many of whom would prefer “Waltzing Matilda” to the mealy-mouthed “Advance Australia Fair”) and the English, many Canadians go on wishing we’d chosen something else.

Still, the only pertinent, semi-scientific study I know of supports “O Canada” over the “Banner” at least slightly: London musicologist Alison Pawley and musical psychologist Daniel Müllensiefen in 2012 evaluated eight national anthems for “sing-along-ability” across 30 criteria, and ranked Canada’s catchier than the U.S. and U.K. anthems. France’s “La Marseillaise,” its bloody revolutionary fight song, conquered all, however, because it locates the sweet spot between the overly challenging (The Star-Spangled Baffler) and the flaccid (God Save the Zzzzz). “La Marseillaise” was one of the world’s earliest national anthems, after those from the Brits and the Dutch, and is likely the most imitated, not to mention the only one quoted by the Beatles.

But let’s return to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” under the guidance of the late Pete Seeger:

In the banjo-plucking hands of that maestro of sing-along-ability, it doesn’t seem so forbidding, does it? And this is the thing about “The Star-Spangled Banner”: It is constantly mutating, such that all its flaws are also virtues. So with decidedly mixed feelings, let me name four reasons why “The Star-Spangled Banner” should not be the American national anthem—which are also the reasons it will never be displaced.

1) It is elitist, in both source and form. When the successful lawyer and amateur poetaster Francis Scott Key wrote the words to the anthem, he was an appointed negotiator for political prisoners in the War of 1812. He was detained on an American boat tied to a British one so that he could not give away strategic information he might have gleaned aboard the enemy vessel, and the next morning, inspired by the sight of the flag still flying above Baltimore’s Fort McHenry after a night of siege, he wrote the lyrics, set to a popular fraternal melody, “To Anacreon in Heaven”—people once thought the pairing came later, but now we know he already had written verse to it before.

It’s often said that the tune was an “English drinking song,” but that brings up images of tipsy pub sing-alongs. In fact this was a more formal, gentlemen’s supper-club tune, a classy affair where booze and sex come up only via classical mythology, with its call “to entwine / the myrtle of Venus and Bacchus’s vine.” By the time Key used it, it had already been adapted as a rallying song for John Adams, and in return as an attack song for Thomas Jefferson. Rather than a group sing, it was more of a call-and-response composed to show off the skills of the group’s best soloist. Its melodic challenges were intentional, without a thought of the discomfort it would bring to future school assemblies and baseball games.

Another word for “elitist,” however, might be “aspirational.” The “Banner’s” verbal complexity requires effort and learning—in other words, progress. And while it terrorizes singers to know they are going to have to reach that high note on “o’er the land of the free,” it also builds into the song a kind of goal to achieve, a higher register to attain, like a musical allegory of spiritual transcendence or class mobility, or, what the hell, the American Dream.

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