O Say Can You See

Happy 4th of July, everyone.  This is a holiday in which I think about the Declaration of Independence, but sometimes find myself, like today, drifting to think about America’s national anthem.  Views on the Star-Spangled Banner usually start – very sensibly – from the concession that as a piece of music, it’s mostly un-singable and not very attractive as a song.  But most countries have fairly lousy national anthems, being accidents of history and all and America is no exception, so get used to it.

I don’t think this is quite true.  Three terrific national anthems, and I’m sure there are others: Germany’s is genuinely beautiful (taken from a slow movement in a Haydn quartet).  South Africa’s is what a good, idealistic national hymn should be, and a lovely song to boot.  And, upon hearing the Marseillaise, who can resist at least a twitch to join the French Foreign Legion?  Pour la France and all. A touching moment of one of the recent French elections, after all, is a split screen YouTube video of the two candidates and their parties on election night, each singing the French national anthem with a heart and soul that I’ve never heard an American confab match.

It’s not for want of patriotic spirit.  But the musical hurdles are daunting – starting with a range of an octave and a fifth.  There’s a reason, in other words, for the evolution – at ball games, of course, but if you look around, you’ll see a wide variety of settings where it is customary to open with the national anthem – toward having someone else sing the song while everyone else puts hand over heart and mostly mouths the words.

The New York Times has an article in today’s Arts section on the many pitfalls for those who are either invited or else volunteer to sing it to open games.  It opens by noting how difficult it is as a song:

It is a notoriously difficult song to sing, a musical high-wire act, with an octave-and-a-half range and a devilishly spaced melody. You usually sing it a cappella in a stadium where the echo hits your ear a half-beat behind the melody, and the lyrics are so familiar and fraught with meaning that every fan in the stands can hear the slightest mistake or botched note.

It adds, too, that for all this, singers who are able to handle it can find it a genuinely moving, even sublime experience.

Yet the singers who step out on the baseball field to deliver the “The Star-Spangled Banner” say singing it can be a sublime experience, so much so that most of them perform it free, either to fulfill a childhood dream or pay respect to country and team. It can also further their careers. Sometimes the motive is all three desires.

For every Whitney Houston out-of-the-ballpark rendition, there’s a Roseanne Barr.  But in any event, it’s a ritual in baseball – and sporting events all the way down to your child’s summer swim team and mine – that is deeply resistant to change.  Audiences are forgiving of bad performances, at least if they don’t believe singing it was merely a cynical career move; everyone knows it’s tough.  But they are hostile to making fun of it:

It is a ritual that has been resistant to change and hostile to parody. José Feliciano was booed at the 1968 World Series when he offered his soft-rock version of the anthem, the melody gently altered over his rhythm guitar. Ms. Barr was roundly condemned for belting the song out of tune for comic effect, at a Padres game in 1990.

The peculiar cultural result of the association of the national anthem with “Play ball!” is two-fold.  On the one hand, a remarkably wide national audience, including a huge number of immigrants, is very familiar with the anthem – though neither they nor the 10th generation American are likely to know the actual words.  On the other hand, the association of the anthem is less as a national song than as a hymn to baseball.  Is that so bad, as a mechanism of assimilation?  Probably not, and in any case, it is frankly not as if the words of the Star Spangled Banner are actually invitations to deep meditation on being an American; it is a song about the flag and battle, and the fact is, it doesn’t go much deeper than that.  It goes deeper because of our investment in the song, not something that started out in the song itself.

Having un-deep words for a national anthem is also not so bad, we should add – though the offsetting benefit properly ought to be a  crowd-pleasing, singable song.  In this, Australia (if it wants my advice) should simply change its national anthem to Waltzing Mathilde and be done with it.  Waltzing Mathilde is a nearly perfect national anthem: it’s not just singable, it’s so compulsively singable it reshapes the neurons and creates ear worms (I myself have been known to hum it for days on end, not to anyone’s happiness save mine).  It is so compulsively likable that it becomes sublime – it creates its own group consciousness.  As for the lyrics, they are perfect because they are Austrialian without ever mentioning the place; they invite Australianness by indirection.  By contrast, The Star Spangled Banner is a musically unmemorable tune combined with lyrics that are intended to be sentimental about the patria, and yet which curiously miss the point.  The song is about the flag – but the United States is not, and never has been, about the flag.

The United States of America is, as often said, a credal nation.  But the creed is found in the Constitution, and a handful of other canonical documents – the Declaration of Independence, and beyond those, two others from the re-founding, the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address.  (Side note: I’m not truly an originalist because I believe, like Lincoln, that the Constitution should be interpreted in light of the Declaration and, today, by the Gettysburg and the two Lincoln Inaugurals.) It is not found in the flag – and, as the late Walter Karp pointed out in an important essay in Harpers several decades ago, flag worship up until America’s own age of empire, around the turn of the 20th century, was considered something close to a slur upon the national symbol that mattered, the Constitution.  Red, white, and blue – sure – bunting, battle flags in the Civil War, sure – but Karp describes a considerable hostility in the 19th century to what was considered the false worship of the flag as a flag.  It was a practice of nationalism, not patriotism, and a feature of European powers and , not the new covenant of America.  This changed with the First World War, and the rise of genuine nationalism – and with it a worship of the flag and the rituals of flag reverence and all the rest.

It’s not a terrible thing, a hundred years on; we’ve managed to invest the flag fairly effectively with the true creed of the Constitution.  But it is worth bearing in mind that many Americans of the 19th century would have found this troubling, a form of political idolatry, focused upon symbols of nationalism rather than patriotism.  What’s the difference?  The best exposition is found in the writings of historian John Lukacs; and the differences are deeper than one might have thought.  Patriotism, Lukacs says, is always about love of place and the people as a concrete community dwelling in that place. Patriotism is about home and the love of home. Nationalism is by contrast about the people as an abstraction.  The former has at least the possibility of being self-limiting and modest, because it is tied to a place; the latter, much less so.  (I really don’t do Lukacs justice here; his essays on this are worth reading.) What’s striking, however, is that Americans tend readily to find this difference and grasp it; Europeans often find themselves skeptical that there is a difference to be found.  But in any case, Francis Scott Key’s song about the flag, rather than a (singable) hymn to the Constitution, or at least to America as a political community, seems ever so slightly off-base, measured by the American creed that actually matters.

America does have a perfectly worthy candidate for the national anthem – a genuine hymn musically, singable by the American congregation together, and with lyrics that run to the American vision and community: America the Beautiful.  It is not, I would maintain (on neurological grounds!), as good as Waltzing Mathilde is for Australia, but it would make a beautiful and meaningful national anthem.  Here’s the problem, however.  We have reached a point in the political history of the Republic in which such a change is impossible – and that is precisely because the lyrics have meaning.  America the Beautiful offers a moral vision of America and an aesthetic vision of the place we call home; it is patriotic rather than nationalistic because it is about home, sea to shining sea and all.  (Perhaps the closest to it, in this sense of patriotism and place, is that very great English hymn, Jerusalem, from the poem by William Blake, though on balance, the American Jerusalem is not so much America the Beautiful as The Battle Hymn of the Republic.)

By contrast, the Star Spangled Banner says, more or less … hooray, we haven’t been defeated yet!  Which is to say, it could be any country’s song, because it isn’t about much more than hanging in there in war.  Yes, of course, it’s about the United States, its Constitutional Republic, hanging in there through war, the flag as metaphor for the Constitution and the nation – but that’s not what the song is directly about;  this is a meaning attached to the song by metaphor.  Put another way, The Star Spangled Banner could be about a lot of countries – just shift the reference of the flag metaphor – whereas America the Beautiful could never be about any country other than America.

Yet seeking to adopt America the Beautiful as the national anthem results in political gridlock because no one can resist tinkering with meaningful lyrics to give them even more meaning – but of course those meanings are exactly the contested ones.  So nothing happens.  In that case, maybe it’s better to have a national anthem – The Star Spangled Banner – which is unobjectionable because, unlike America the Beautiful, its lyrics are not deep and not particularly reflective.  They have meaning because we attach the meaning of the American nation to them; but unlike America the Beautiful, they didn’t start out (very deeply, at least) that way.

Happy July 4th.  We’re settling down to hamburgers and hotdogs and … that 1990s movie, Independence Day.  Which has a lot of rockets’ red glare and bombs bursting in air; but in the end, humans prevail, thanks to the land of the free and home of the brave. And Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum and an Apple Powerbook 5300.


Comments are closed.

Powered by WordPress. Designed by Woo Themes