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.

Advertisement

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.

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.

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.”

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”:

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. 

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Stop Panicking. America Is Now in Very Good Shape to Respond to the Ebola Crisis.

The 2014 Kansas City Royals Show the Value of Building a Mediocre Baseball Team

The GOP Won’t Win Any Black Votes With Its New “Willie Horton” Ad

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Technocracy

Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

One of Putin’s Favorite Oligarchs Wants to Start an Orthodox Christian Fox News

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

Trending News Channel
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 20 2014 8:14 PM You Should Be Optimistic About Ebola Don’t panic. Here are all the signs that the U.S. is containing the disease.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 20 2014 7:23 PM Chipotle’s Magical Burrito Empire Keeps Growing, Might Be Slowing
  Life
Dear Prudence
Oct. 21 2014 9:18 AM Oh, Boy Prudie counsels a letter writer whose sister dresses her 4-year-old son in pink tutus.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 21 2014 9:25 AM The Brilliant Fake Novels of Listen Up Philip
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 21 2014 9:39 AM The International-Student Revolving Door Foreign students shouldn’t have to prove they’ll go home after graduating to get a visa.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 21 2014 7:00 AM Watch the Moon Eat the Sun: The Partial Solar Eclipse on Thursday, Oct. 23
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.