The star-mangled banner

Pop singer Christina Aguilera was the latest to mangle the national anthem, singing, “What so proudly we watched/ At the twilight’s last reaming” before the start of last month’s Super Bowl.

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On Thursday the song celebrates its 80th anniversary as the United States’ official national anthem, and despite its nearly impossible musical range, reliably tongue-tying effects and “militaristic” lyrics, Americans can settle in for at least another 80 years warbling, “Oh, say, can you see?” experts say.

An Aguilera-like flub often elicits two reactions: (a) What’s wrong with the singer? and (b) What’s wrong with the song?

While America can only speculate on what Aguilera was thinking (“I got so caught up in the moment of the song that I lost my place,” was her apology), plenty of people have plenty to say about how The Star-Spangled Banner is not an apt national anthem.

“Musically, it’s one of the most difficult national anthems in the world to sing,” says Dave Simmons, the Congressional Chorus’s artistic director. “From a musical standpoint, do I think better tunes exist? Yeah.”

Simmons says not only does its range eliminate most of the public from being able to sing the whole song through to the end — and anthems, in their essence, are meant to be group songs — but its lyrics are also too specific. The Star-Spangled Banner refers to the flag during The War of 1812’s Battle of Fort McHenry, when most other national anthems address the country and patriotism in general, he says.

“America the Beautiful” is much easier to sing, and “God Bless America” moves people in a way that an anthem should, Simmons says. 

These grumblings aren’t merely a product of Aguilera’s widely seen mishap or other recent butcherings of The Star-Spangled Banner. The song has endured scrutiny for almost as long as it has been the national anthem. In a 1968 Life magazine article, then-musical administrator for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts George London, a singer in the Metropolitan Opera Company, decried the song as the country’s anthem, saying he would prepare for it “as I would for a major operatic role” whenever asked to sing it. He also took issue with its militaristic themes.

“I propose that Congress commission one of our leading poets to write a new set of words to this great hymn, contemporary and divorced from any reference to the Civil War,” he wrote. “In this time of stress and division, a great new, and singable, national anthem would give all Americans a spiritual rallying point independent of party, policy or region.”

And, over the years, the Library of Congress has had enough people write in to complain about The Star-Spangled Banner as the national anthem that it came up with a form letter explaining what it would take (i.e., an act of Congress) to change it, according to former LoC music specialist Wayne Shirley. 

Clearly, America has high expectations for a song that originated as a drinking ballad. The British “Anacreontic Song” gained popularity in America in the 19th century, and the melody so happened to fit with the words to Francis Scott Key’s poem about the British navy’s 1814 
attack on Fort McHenry. A congressional resolution on March 3, 1931, made the song America’s national anthem.

Elizabeth Lasko, the assistant executive director at the National Association for Music Education, says the 
official selection of The Star-Spangled Banner as the national anthem wasn’t entirely without controversy. The members of her organization were involved in picking the official song, she said, and they were split on their support of The Star-Spangled Banner.

Today the association just wants people to know it and sing it, no matter how hard it is or what it says.

“Our position is that whatever is the national anthem, we just care that kids are singing it in school,” Lasko says. Her organization ran the National Anthem Project from 2004 to 2007 to educate people about the song after national polls showed that roughly two-thirds of Americans didn’t know the words.

Craig Parker, an associate music professor at Kansas State University, says The Star-Spangled Banner made sense as a national anthem at the time of its selection because the young country was proud of its early successes.

“I think probably the timeliness of it and the fact that we were a new nation that managed to defeat its former oppressors” led Congress to choose The Star-
Spangled Banner as the anthem, he says.

 But “The United States could’ve come up with a better anthem,” says Parker, who quizzes his students on the song in his Intro to American Music class. 

The chances of the anthem changing, however, are slim, Parker and other experts say. For the many people who don’t like The Star-Spangled Banner, there are scores of others who say that tradition trumps opinion and that the song has become an immovable institution. What’s more, Congress would have to approve a new song amid its workload addressing much weightier policy issues.

“It would take not only the agreement that this is a bad national anthem but agreement on what would replace it,” Shirley says. “That’s the hard thing.”

(For what it’s worth, experts most often cite “America the Beautiful” and “My Country ’Tis of Thee” as the top candidates to replace the anthem.)

Most Star-Spangled Banner naysayers realize a call to change the national anthem is an exercise in futility. For his part, Simmons, the Congressional Chorus director, operates under the assumption that his singers will be performing the same national anthem for the rest of their lives. 

“Should we change it? I don’t know,” he says. “I wouldn’t have a problem if we did … but we’ve managed the last 80 years with it.”