Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Oh Say Can You See ...

... what you're doing to the national anthem! With football season in full swing, the baseball playoffs about to begin, and basketball and hockey season just around the corner, we are being treated to an annoying and almost constant barrage of personalized renditions of "The Star Spangled Banner". 

Good, bad, or indifferent; the resulting cacophony of noise from this indiscriminate assault on the national anthem is beginning to drive me out of my skull (a short trip I will grant you, allowing excellent gas mileage since it's all down hill).  

Don't get me wrong, it's not that I am a particular fan of this nation's theme song. Its lyrics were written by amateur poet Francis Scott Key while sitting out a battle on a British prison ship (the "Defense of Fort Henry"), hardly a recommendation. Its melody is not only droning, but was in fact stolen from an English drinking song ("The Anacreontic Song", for those of you who care about such things)

On the whole I find that as songs go, it probably could. Quite frankly, it's entirely too difficult to sing for those of us not given to epic performances of Karaoke. What these vocal stylists seem to be doing to it lately however, seems like more like a violation of the Geneva Convention against torture, and often becomes little more than a national embarrassment. 

I blame my own generation for beginning this musical degradation. It was we 'old schoolers' who cheered back in the 60's when Jimi Hendrix created a virtuoso left-hand electric guitar solo of this patriotic hymn, exciting every emotion in the youth and popular culture of the day but the one that was intended by the author of the lyrics. Once this journey to the dark side (sorry Yoda) had begun, the rest was perhaps inevitable. 

It was not however until January of 1991, when Whitney Houston put her own unique stamp on this song at Super Bowl XXV that the concept of making this country's anthem "your own" became the signature goal for every troubadour in popular music. And even though I thoroughly enjoyed and admired her performance of the day, I began to feel a vague sinking feeling for the long term fate of this far from catchy tune. In the ensuing years, those worst fears have been realized. 

A seemingly endless number of performers with various skills have done an equally endless number of tedious and sometimes painful renditions of a song that doesn't lend itself to much individual interpretation. While I may applaud some of the vocal performances as examples of the artistic use of the voice as an instrument, my fundamental concern over such expression remains. As does my fundamental question:

"Why can't someone sing the damn song that way that it was written?"

This is not some Top 40 hit that needs revisiting to revitalize and define it. This is not part of a national 'greatest hits' album that everyone gets to take their best shot at the reinterpretation of. I would venture to say that it's not even at the same level as conventional classical music or opera, and subject therefore to the artistic tastes of individual conductors. 

Imagine if you will the reaction in the stands if the organ player at a baseball game ran off with a jazz riff of the song before the first pitch was thrown. I expect there would be some bemused expressions on the faces of those with their hats in their hands (assuming that they recognized the song and remembered to take them off during the performance). Imagine the consternation in the stands if the keyboard player at a basketball game ripped off a swing version before the opening tip off. Imagine the shock at a football game or soccer match (both technically football) if they began with a hip-hop version of this somber remembrance before the first foot was applied. 

Listen, if you don't like the song, fine ... let's go ahead and change it. After all, people have been clamoring for "God Bless America" as a replacement for years; citing that not only is it a more beautiful song, but one much that is much easier for your average tin-eared citizen to sing. 

I suspect however, that it's day has passed, and that it's now an unlikely substitute. The ACLU would no doubt find the mention of a Supreme Being in the nation's theme song a pesky little Constitutional issue of the 'separation of church and state" (which it isn't, by the way). If you've got different one in mind though, bring it on and let's vote on it! I'm willing to hear argument. The current one was only made preeminent by an act of Congress after all, and its use as a national anthem has only been going on since 1931. Such use is not one designated by the Founding Fathers and is not mandated by Constitutional decree. 

I ask you however, if you can can imagine hearing such liberties taken (pun intended) with our northern neighbors anthem "Oh Canada" being livened up at the beginning of many hockey games? Imagine the resultant furor in Parliament if equal license were taken with that of our brothers across the pond, and someone were doing their own personal riff on "God Save the Queen" at a public event (especially if the Queen were in attendance)

If you want to show us how great a singer you are during your performance at the opening of a major sporting event, impress us by singing the song note for note without embellishment. If you want to really impress us, try putting some genuine feeling into it instead of using the nation's anthem as an attempt to demonstrate your vocal range. 

Please remember that just because you're performing in public doesn't mean that you have to turn what is supposed to be a patriotic experience into your audition for American Idol. The flag may indeed be waving over "the land of the free and the home of the brave" as the song says, but there is little doubt that we are about to be treated to a great deal of discordant noise being generated in consecration of that symbol. 

America may in fact have talent (to paraphrase another popular culture show that I have never actually watched) but one would hardly be able to guess it by listening to some of those lifting up their voices to celebrate it.

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