My take on the SSB

Several people have asked me what I thought about Christina Aguilera’s interesting treatment of the national anthem at the Super Bowl. Here’s the lowdown, but before I get into it:

I see no problem with Christina having muffed a lyric. It happens to the best of singers. Experienced stage actors forget a line once in awhile, even after performing the same scene hundreds of times. Neuron misfire is not the issue here. OK, my take:

  1. It is a difficult song to sing. My own personal feelings aside (oh all right..I think “America, the Beautiful” should be our national anthem*), the tune is a set-up to any solo singer. I don’t know what John Stafford Smith was thinking when he wrote the melody 200+ years ago; he may have wanted to impress the members of the Anacreontic Society, a good-ol’-boy club of amateur musicians in London who gathered together regularly to talk about wine, women and song. And wine. *hic* Truth is, singing a song that spans an octave plus a perfect 5th is no easy feat, regardless of one’s sobriety level.
  2. Too many singers try to sexify it. It’s hideous. And while I’m proud to have been born and raised in the USA, totally missing the point on something like this is so, so American. Now don’t get me wrong: I’m all for putting a little extra style or personal stamp on the song when performing it, but anyone with marginal sense can listen to what happened last Sunday and think, “Yipes, she is trying way too hard.” The melody is lost, right along with the message. And Christina, please. Open your eyes once in awhile. It’s annoying, and truthfully, I refuse to believe you were that “caught up” in the intensely passionate and meaningful text. In fact, I’d be interested to know how many Americans could correctly paraphrase the first verse of the poem to begin with. Wagers?
  3. We don’t need a “dumbed down” national anthem, as some have suggested. Adopting a national song with a range inside an octave isn’t the answer. Rather, since we seem to be stuck with “The Star Spangled Banner,” the answer is that we need singers who take the song seriously enough to train on it before performing it. Ours is not the only complicated national anthem. Have you heard Italy’s? I had to learn it back in 1976 when I toured Europe with an American choir and orchestra. It was great fun — especially the middle section. Yee haw. However, you don’t hear Italian pop singers trying to pimp it out. It’s done (at least every time I’ve heard it) with authentic  — as opposed to hand-in-the-air, eyes-closed, tragic hipness — reverence and great pride.

* I like “America, the Beautiful” as a national anthem because it actually describes, well…how beautiful America is. What vistas could instill more pride in where we live than spacious skies, amber waves of grain, and purple mountain majesties? What prayer is more simple and fervent than the entreaty that God bless the country with His grace, and reward its good deeds with a spirit of national brotherhood? Granted, despite Francis Scott Key’s doubts on the matter (what other national anthem ends in a question?), Fort McHenry stood, and a large American flag was raised in victory. Three hundred-some British soldiers died in the battle, while only four were lost on the American side. Cool, yes? I suppose so. Still, the War of 1812 was steeped in greed on both sides — hardly a testament to ardent love of country. Rather, it was the love of other people’s countries (as in, “Hey, we want Canada; let’s go steal it!”) that largely characterized the conflict. Feh.

I’d rather our national song be about nice things. But that’s just me, wanting to feel all the good feelings. That would be unlike the feelings brought about by wind chills of -18. I like winter, but enough already.


12 thoughts on “My take on the SSB

  1. Rae

    “And while I’m proud to have been born and raised in the USA, totally missing the point on something like this is so, so American.”

    I’ve been waiting four days to hear you say that. And now that you have, let me add one point that you’ve already hinted upon — ‘two word phrases are not and never will be sexy’. I don’t care that she messed up the words! I would have rather just closed my eyes and listened to her but I was too distracted by the music and her Hallelujahs. I bet people would be shocked if a pop singer went up there and sung-it-to-us straight, though. Just when I think the entertainment people don’t know what they’re doing when they do something like that… here we are discussing it four days later. They no dummies.

    But, I gather the reason she and others mess up the words is because the song, while difficult, does have a flow. When you hack at it with a machete, it’s easy to get lost in the shards of once-phrased. When you put your elbow, then your other elbow, then your head, then your neck into a song right off the back… you eventually run out of body parts to share with the masses and irony bites you.

    Or would that be a coincidence? :D

    1. Rat Fink Post author

      Hahaha — a strange coincidence, indeed! And the two-word phrase thing makes me want to kill things, too. You know what my biggest peeve is? Breathing after “spangled.” NO. Breathe after “Oh, say,” back phrase “does that,” and then do the rest in one breath. You know, Monday morning I had a thought. I said to myself, “I’m going to record an MP3 of me singing the SSB, send it to the NFL and say, “Here’s the original melody. Can you find someone to approximate it?”

      Two-word phrases — AND chopped-up ones — are definitely not sexy.

      PS – THANK YOU for baking the cake for me yesterday. You are a life saver!!!! Heart heart heart

  2. Tom Hanks

    As a longtime member of the Anacreontic Society I can tell you I was very impressed.

    I would probably be with you on America The Beautiful but I think The Star Spangled Banner sounds cooler. We’ve talked about it before haven’t we? Haha. I think my favorite version to hear is a fair to poor high school band rendition. It really sums everything up about America.

    1. Rat Fink Post author

      I think we have talked about this before! Hey, speekina…I posted two vids on your FB wall and you never responded. Does this mean I’m out of the Kool Kids Klub???

  3. BoomR

    AMEN sister! I couldn’t have said it better myself! Actually I think people misunderstood the more important facet of my FB post. I’m with you – I could forgive a little trip-up on the lyrics. But when that trip-up is the result of you over-stylizing and “getting into it”, then you’ve totally lost the purpose of why you’re there.

    I think this is the best FB post on the subject that I’ve seen: “Maybe if she had sung the song and not created a nauseating series of overly dramatic melismata she might have remembered the words. Are there any musicians any more or have we just degraded into a collection of tacky musical show-offs?”


    1. Rat Fink Post author

      I know, I read your post and agreed. Some folks didn’t get it (although I loved the comment from the girl who said Whitney was “dumb as a box of hair, but she has pipes.” HAAA)

      Christina’s “performance” was hubris at its height. “Overly dramatic melismata” describes it perfectly! In fact, I’ll go you one further. Overly dramatic melismata is the most important criterion on which positive outcomes in American Idol is based. If you can’t do laryngeal gymnastics, you don’t make it. Period.

      Hopefully, “Xtina’s” (how hip is that, really) um, performance, will wake up big-venue producers. YOU should record the anthem and send it in. Teach ’em a thinger two!

  4. RD

    I was completely turned off, not by her forgetting some lyrics, but by her presentation of the SSB. I’d go for “American the Beautiful” too, but I also like “God Bless America.” But that will never happen, given our current hyper PC culture.

    1. Rat Fink Post author

      You’re right — GBA wouldn’t make it, but ATB mentions God, too, so…we’re both outta luck!

      I’ve never been a fan of GBA’s melody and Berlinesque lyrics. That, and I can’t get Kate Smith out of my head when I hear it. LOL

      You never answered my last question! WHEN are you coming back?

  5. Ross

    Yo, been a while, trying to catch up. This is a brilliant post, one of the best on the subject I’ve seen (I think someone else wrote that too). A while back, Esquire’s web site did the top 5 versions of the National Anthem or something and on that list was Whitney of course, but also one from an NHL game that was being broadcast to troops in the Gulf, and as the man sang, the place is going crazy, waving flags and screaming and showing support. Both good versions, but for me the tops – and it can’t be beat – is Marvin Gaye at the NBA All-Star game in like 1983. You could argue he sexes it up, but that might only reveal that you yourself find it sexy. To me, the anthem is both a place for individualism as well as a place for ‘e pluribus unum’. Every night at minor league hockey games we have to hear some 20 or 30 year old female drag out the anthem so she can show off her shaky chops. And I always think, “the anthem isn’t about you.” But Marvin Gaye brought the kind of originality to the anthem that IS appropriate, the kind that reflects more than himself, that reflects the American character.

    That said, the Philadelphia Flyers always do ‘America the Beautiful’ instead of the anthem, more clubs should adopt this.

    1. Rat Fink Post author

      Hiya Ross — good to see you, fiend. Thanks for the vote; you know that means a whole lot, coming from you.

      I have indeed heard Marvin Gaye’s version — sweeeet. And I must say I loved Whitney Houston’s as well. It was one of the very first times (if not *the* first time) I’d ever heard it with orchestral accompaniment. I thought it was fantastic. Both she and Marvin gave it some R & B, but they didn’t shove it down the crowd’s throats. It wasn’t a melisma contest.

      Your observation, “the anthem isn’t about you” is absolutely correct; Christina was caught dead to rights on it. I’ve always thought if the crowd couldn’t hope to find your melodic treatment to sing along with you, you’re laying it on too thick. I just hope the dialog her mistake sparked on all the talking-heads channels and news reports dragged that fact into the light a bit.

      I did not know any team ditched the anthem for AtB! I think that’s excellent.

  6. Ross

    Sorry, they occasionally do ‘God Bless America’, not America the Beautiful.

    Our minor league hockey team now allows groups to sing the anthem. Rent a suite, sing the anthem.


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