February 24, 2011
Oh say, can you sing it?
Here's a little self-administered test for Americans. (Of course, non-Americans are welcome to play, too, if they want.) Sit yourself down with a blank piece of paper or a blank document in your text editor and write out the words — first stanza only — of the US national anthem. When you're done, check your answers by looking up the lyrics. (Here's one site you can use.)
How'd you do? Something like 2/3 of Americans can't get the lyrics right.
I got to thinking about this because twice in the last few weeks I've seen a sporting event at which the pre-game singer mangled the words to the anthem (most prominently, Christina Aguilera at the Superbowl).
The US national anthem presents some difficulties, I think, in a couple of ways:
I mentioned all this on a Facebook post not long ago, and noted that given these difficulties, maybe we should have an easier song as our anthem. This got some responses. One not-surprising response was that singers should know the songs they go out to perform. That's true; if you're a million-dollar singer who gets a gig to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner," you have every obligation to be a pro and get it right. (That said, the vehemence with which Ms. Aguilera was condemned in some quarters was a bit extreme, imo — I don't buy that it was a "disaster," for example.)
- The words only make sense if you know that it commemorates a siege and bombardment. What "perilous fight" are we talking about here? What's up with the "rockets' red glare"? In the second line, "what so proudly we hail'd," what does what refer to? Not that this is necessarily important, but what war is this?
- The musical range, an octave plus a fifth, is at about the limit of the range for amateur singers. There's more than one reason that people applaud when singers hit that "home of the FREE". :-)
What surprised me a little, tho, were the responses that argued that the anthem should not be "dumbed down" just because people couldn't sing it. To me, this seems backward. The national anthem (I emphasize: to me) is something that literally belongs to the people, something that people sing as part of their pride in their nation and in solidarity with their fellow-citizens. Given this, isn't it ideal to have an anthem that anyone can sing, both lyrically and musically? As it is, we generally have to rely on professional singers for good renditions of the anthem, because, as noted, the majority of Americans cannot make it through the song.
The analogy I used was the song "Happy Birthday" — so simple, both musically and lyrically, that even small children can sing it. Obviously, no one is going to come up with a national anthem that's as simplistic as "Happy Birthday," but you get the idea — the song should serve the people, not be some sort of skills test or patriotism SAT.
It's not as if the national anthem is part of the Constitution or anything; it's only been an official anthem since 1931. I get that people like the phrase "star-spangled" and that even if most people can't pinpoint which rockets' red glare we're talking about, it makes a nice complement to, say, the Fourth of July. Still, it would be nice to have a song that would be easier to sing.