July 26, 2003
A short rant about the National Anthem

I'm a season ticket holder for the Houston Comets and have been for four years now. I generally enjoy the experience - the price is right, the fans are into the action, the team is good - but there's one part of every game that makes me cringe. I speak of the singing of the "Star Spangled Banner".

Almost every singer of the National Anthem at these games is some kind of pop-singer wannabe who gives a breathy, wants-to-be-soulful-but-comes-off-as-tacky version of the song, and it always just sounds wrong to me. Today's rendition, performed by one of the Comets' "Team NRG" dancers, was the most egregious I've yet encountered. I swear, I thought the girl was going to start writhing during the bridge. The Comets have had a color guard present the flag before each game, and I can't help but wonder what they think of this.

Now, I don't believe that the only proper arrangement of the Anthem is based on John Phillip Sousa's. It's still a piece of music, and and that means it's a valid means for creative exploration by different artists. But as my friend Eve once remarked, the Star Spangled Banner isn't supposed to sound sexy. That's just not appropriate.

I think what bothers me the most about these singers is that their performance of the Banner sounds to me like it's about them rather than about the song. Every added pause, every trill and fermata, and especially the sky-high octave on "land of the free", often comes across to me as the performer's ego. Again, there's nothing wrong with adding some color to the song, but it should be in the interest of the song and not the singer. This isn't "American Idol", dammit. It's a sporting event, and you're fulfilling a ritualistic obligation. Sing the song and take your seat.

I admit, I'm an old-fart classic-rock-listening stick in the mud whose taste is very much out of step with most of the audience at these games. But know this: When the revolution comes and I'm put in charge of this sort of thing, any singer who commits an offense against good taste in performing the National Anthem will get five years on the chain gang. You have been warned.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on July 26, 2003 to Music | TrackBack

One of the interesting bits from "In My Life" is the recording of the title track by Sean Connery - "spoken, not sung" I think that treatment of the anthem would do very well.

But I'd be willing to accept the occassional writhy pop rendition of some other verse - Christine Aguilera getting down with "No refuge could save the hireling and slave" etc.

Posted by: Danil on July 26, 2003 7:07 PM

So does that mean Jose Feliciano gets the needle?

Posted by: Pete on July 26, 2003 7:09 PM

Just a vaguely on topic note: My wife, something of a trained singer herself (if strictly amateur) assures me that the National Anthem is one of the most difficult common pieces to sing correctly.

In fact, when I had the misfortune to see part of "American Idol" and remarked that it was odd to see a guy sing the Anthem as his audition, she said it was, in fact, bragging.

It takes skill to sing it well. Which is why it's sad to see so many people without the skill try it, and so many with the skill screw it up.

Posted by: Morat on July 26, 2003 10:07 PM

Amen. Though I eagerly await the Britney Spears (or Beyonce or whoever) come-hither rendition of "O Canada" the next time the Mets play the Expos. Shouldn't "O Canada" sound sexy?

Posted by: Chris Quinones on July 26, 2003 10:08 PM

I am also not a fan of those people who try to turn the national anthem into a pop or soul tune. Most of the people signing the tune before sporting events appear to be from the Patti Labelle "I can screech in eight octaves" school of singing.

The best versions of the national anthem are done by people who give the song the dignity it deserves. Although most people cite Robert Merill's version of the song (performed many times before Yankee games) as the best, I prefer a version done by a Canadian named Roger Doucet. In addition to a stirring version of the US National Anthem before Montreal Canadiens games, he was even better known for an astounding bilingual operatic version of the Canadian national anthem "O Canada". Sadly, he has passed away, however, there was a recent release of a CD done by him of various national anthems that was originally done for the 1976 Olympics in Montreal.

The best assessment of the Jose Feliciano version of the national anthem was provided by none other than Bob Gibson. His comment that it was the worst thing he ever heard sums it up best.

If Marvin Gaye were still alive, I'd want to give him a needle as well for his rendition of the anthem at the 1984 NBA All-Star Game. Roseanne Arnold Barr Moose should get a special mention for her rendition several years back. Ironically, one of the worst renditions people consider is the version done in Houston
by one of my all time favorite guitar players, Stevie Ray Vaughan before an Astros game.

Posted by: William Hughes on July 26, 2003 10:14 PM

Chuck, you're at a WOMEN'S NBA GAME. From the git-go, everything is off-center.

I know you love this sport, but you cannot feign surprise at retarded national anthems. Outrage is acceptable, but you must learn to simply accept this kind of thing, else you're gonna have an embolism.

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on July 26, 2003 11:09 PM
Shouldn't "O Canada" sound sexy?
Chris: You're thinking of The Story Of 'O Canada', a tale of humiliation, bondage, and free trade zones. Posted by: Michael on July 26, 2003 11:12 PM

Andrea keeps telling me that the Lagers should try to get this gig. It really is a difficult song for a soloist, but it's easier to make it sound good when you have 4-part harmony.

If anyone has a connection for the gig, let me know.

Posted by: elizabeth on July 27, 2003 12:55 AM

Comes the revolution, I'll be nominating you for that position!

Posted by: Lilith on July 27, 2003 1:55 AM

Just to be clear, I agree that the SSB is a challenging song to sing. It's not that the cringeworthy performances have been technically bad - they're all competent, on-key, and reasonably talented - it's the artistic choice they've made in rendering it as a breathy piece of pop effluvium. And yes, I know that the demographic at these games is a big determining factor in how the Anthem is sung. But hey, I have a blog, and that means I can gripe about it. :-) Besides, the version yesterday was egregious even by those standards.

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on July 27, 2003 11:34 AM

I wish that Kate Smith had sung our National Anthem along with with "God Bless America". Now that would have been real Americana. However, can anyone beat the recent rendition of the Anthem by the little girl at the Blazers game where Mo Cheeks rescued her when she went blank on the words and gave real meaning to the "home of the brave".

Posted by: Dud on July 27, 2003 11:59 AM

I remember an appealing version done by Huey Lewis and the News that MTV used to play many nights as a sign-off video in the 80s before they were a 24 hour station. Apparently, he still performs it semi-regularly at sporting events.

Posted by: Matt on July 27, 2003 12:36 PM

The tune is an old, possibly pre-revolutionary English drinking song ("To Anacreon in Heaven"), and it is very nearly unsingable by ordinary mortals, even if Key did apparently have that tune in mind when he wrote the words. It almost doesn't matter what you do to it; its inspirational value is associative, not musical.

On my more politically depressive days, I sit at the piano and render the SSB (hey, those are my initials too!) in a minor key. That's what comes of having taught music theory at one time in my life: at need, I can make the Anthem even more challenging than it already is.

They say everyone at a sporting event forgets the words, and apart from that, no one knows the later verses. GeeDubya is living proof of that: he remembers "Then conquer we must" while forgetting "when our cause it is just"!

Some resources...

I can't put my hands on it at the moment, but a graphic of the cover of the original 19th-cent. published edition is out there on the web, if you ever need it for your site. As to the Banner itself... the flag, I mean, not the song... appropriately enough, it's undergoing restoration.

Posted by: Steve Bates on July 27, 2003 2:16 PM

Note... at least one site other than the one I quoted says "for our cause it is just," which just proves that no one remembers the words, not even those who claim expertise! I grew up singing "when," so I'm rather attached to it.

Posted by: Steve Bates on July 27, 2003 2:21 PM

I always resent having the national anthem sung 'at' me. It's like the whole group designates a proxy to sin for them...and it inevitably comes off like a performance...well, it is!

Can you imagine having a birthday party and asking one person to sing 'happy birthday'!

But that's just me.

Posted by: Erasmus on July 27, 2003 4:54 PM

Having seen the anthem most at baseball games in Toronto, it's worth noting that there, both anthems (U.S. first, then Canadian) are often sung by small harmony groups or a middle school choir from Brampton or something like that. They stick to the original melody but also manage to do very well with the tough 13-note range of the SSB, at which point "O Canada" is a breeze. (Last I saw, the U.S. anthem got polite and nice applause--however, the last time was in April; who knows now. And they may be applauding the nice folks singing it more than the country it represents. Canadians also sing along more than we do, at least at Blue Jays games.) Maybe annoying renditions are more common at basketball games...

That said, this Lynx fan hopes that the anthem, good or bad, is the high point of your game tomorrow night, Charles.

Posted by: no_plot on July 28, 2003 9:25 PM

I think that Beyonce's performance of the national anthem was tasteful and appropriate. I don't think she did to much and I think her delivery was perfect and I dare some soul-less person to say otherwise!!!

Posted by: Faith on February 1, 2004 9:38 PM

beyonce's proformance of the national anthem was the bomb she did a wonderful job

Posted by: steven on February 2, 2004 10:25 AM

beyonce sung the national anthem so well so brought tears to my eyes, she has an awesome voice

Posted by: allen on February 2, 2004 10:27 AM

I'm not a fan of Beyonce's. Still, I must say that she did an excellent job of performing our national anthem. I was quite impressed with the honor and taste in which it was delivered.

Posted by: TJ on February 2, 2004 8:27 PM

Some of you are a bit too sensitive I think.

Marvin Gaye's rendition at the beginning of the 1983 (not 84) All Star game is my favorite of the "non traditional" versions of the National Anthem. Honestly, anything that Marvin sang was instant gold and his rendition of the Star Bangled Banner is better than a lot of the "traditional" versions I've heard as of late.

Posted by: Ron on December 1, 2004 7:53 PM

I realize that I'm about two years too late for this conversation, and that I'm probably just writing for myself, but what the hey.
Traditionl versions are OK, if you can sing them well. I also like the idea of lowering it an octave for mass singings so the people other than the show-offs of church congregations everywhere can sing it.
As far as modern renditions, I think some are good, some are not, and some might be good for the context in which they were done. E.g., Jimi Hendrix's version worked as a closing to Woodstock, and as a novelty listen, but doesn't hold up for a performance anywhere today for a public event. I like Jose Feliciano's version (at least I can sing along with it!), though I realize it's not everyone' cup of tea. I think everyone can agree that Rosanne Barr's version was a tragedy from conception.

Posted by: Thom B. on December 17, 2006 9:48 AM

It's interesting that some are willing to give others "the needle" for singing a song because some singers don't afford it the proper respect.

I agree that it is a song that represents America. Perhaps the various ways it is communicated reflect the various people that make America what it is.

I think some of the comments are ironic. They reflect what I hear a lot these days. People who are in love with the theory of democracy not the day to day practice. Because if you believe in the practice you wouldn't be talking about giving someone "the needle" for not singing a song the way you like.

Perhaps we all need to start to practice what we say we hold dear, otherwise there are a lot of people dying overseas in an attempt to promote something we don't even practice ourselves. To me that is the true indignity.

Posted by: Dawn on January 1, 2007 4:25 PM