Column: Anthems

by Chas Smith


The first sheet music issue of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” printed by Thomas Carr’s music store in Baltimore in 1814. Image from the Library of Congress..

Column: Anthems


National anthems are, by nature, weird. These songs about national pride, often bordering on jingoism, force a usually docile public to sing about cultural superiority like lil’ Nazis. National anthems are weird in Great Britain, they are weird in Italy, they are not weird at all in North Korea, and they are super weird in the United States of America.

We get the first taste of our American national anthem, the “Star-Spangled Banner,” in grade school as we place tender hands over tender hearts and open our mouths and sing. But in this first taste we also realize that the way it is composed makes it basically impossible to sing well. We listen as our own choked voices—and those of our classmates—start the first verse; “Oh-oh saaaay can you see…” too high, which sends “…byyyyy the dawn’s early light…” into ear-splittingly terrible soprano stratosphere. “Whose broad stripes and bright stars…” comes back down, but maybe too low since we learned a valuable lesson starting too high “…through the perilous fight…” sounds okay, “Ooooo’er the raaaamparts we watched…” and then we are in the soprano stratosphere once again. This continues until the line “And the rocket’s red glare,” which gets so sopranic, so ear-splitting, that many have had aneurysms. But rest is not at hand. The song marches on until it reaches the fabled “…Ooooooo’er the laaa-aaaa---aaaan-d of the freeeeee-EEEEEEEE…” and wow. And OMG. And who can handle that height? Not me. Not anyone I know personally (except P!nk).

Yet, impossible registers and all, the “Star-Spangled Banner” is regularly sung in front of large crowds by a brave (or narcissistic) few. It is sung before sporting events, before government galas, before public dedications. And these brave (or narcissistic) few stand alone, mic in hand, with large crowds peering down. Why? Why risk falling apart, especially on the freeeee-EEEEEEE? It makes no sense.

The non-famous get branded as untalented when they stumble. Like, when a little girl at Dodger Stadium, for example, wavers and fails, the crowd collectively thinks “Oh. That little girl can’t sing.” And her career is over before it starts, lying prostrate with so many others in front of Francis Scott Key. The famous also get branded as untalented. I’ve listened as Hootie and the Blowfish’s Darius Rucker tripped over the antiquated language and got booed. I’ve listened as Taylor Swift didn’t go as dynamic as people wanted on the freeeee-EEEEEEE, and heard those around me guffaw: “Oh. That little girl can’t sing.” I can only imagine that record sales plummeted for both.

But the brave or narcissistic still come. Maybe they have visions of Mariah Carey dancing in their heads. She is one of the few to really knock freeeee-EEEEEEE right out of the park. Goose bump city. Or they fancied themselves to be the next Whitney Houston. But who they should be imagining is Roseanne Barr. Fat, awkward, trying to be funny, not being funny. That is how everyone who fails looks. Just like Roseanne Barr. Unpatriotic. Painful.

Though, I suppose, at the end of the day that’s what makes the bravery or narcissism so grand. It takes a song like the “Star-Spangled Banner,” an almost certain performance disaster, for R. Kelly to stand up and place a perverted hand over a perverted heart and utterly fail. It is fun to watch R. Kelly fail. It is maybe the most fun of all. Yes, many who tread into the Star-Spangled waters need to be publically lynched. But public lynching is outlawed. The “Star-Spangled Banner” is forever. God bless Francis Scott Key. God bless that cruel, cruel man.