National Anthem Discord
By John D. Turner
7 Feb 2011

Does anyone know how to sing the National Anthem anymore? I mean, you know, the way it was originally written and scored? For some reason, professional singers can’t seem to do a simple rendition; they have to try to make the song “theirs” by adding to it musically. I don’t understand this; isn’t it good enough the way it is?

At least they get the lyrics right… most of the time. Which brings me to the totally screwed up version of the “national anthem” as sung by Christina Aguilera for Super Bowl XLV this past Sunday. What a fiasco! There’s nothing like making a total fool of oneself before millions of viewers on national television.

I admit it is a difficult song for many to sing. It has a wide dynamic range with a very high note near the end (more on that later). Yes, for us “common folk” the tune presents some difficulty. But for an accomplished vocalist, who makes their living singing songs for the rest of us, it's pretty much a piece of cake. Apparently too simple, which is why, I suppose, they try to “jazz it up” a bit.

Now I don’t mind a little dramatic flair. Whitney Houston’s 1991 rendition (also at a Super Bowl) is for me probably the pinnacle of the singing of the National Anthem in a public venue by a professional singer, at least in my lifetime. Every time I watch it, it brings tears to my eyes. I get the feeling watching it that it’s all about the anthem, not about Whitney Houston; she really feels what she is singing. It makes me proud to be an American.

Christina’s performance last night brings tears to my eyes too, for an entirely different reason. This is undoubtedly the worst performance I have ever seen. Even Rosanne Barr’s, pathetic as it was, was better, for the simple reason at least she knew the lyrics. (OK, I relent. Nothing could be as bad as Rosanne 'singing' the National Anthem.) To cut Rosanne some slack, she is a “comedian” and has never pretended that she knows how to sing. (Personally, I don’t find her that funny either. But that’s just me.) If you haven’t seen Christina’s Super Bowl fiasco, here is the link. But best view on an empty stomach… and sitting down.

She says she has been singing the anthem since she was 7 years old. And I have no reason to doubt her. Most of us learned the song in grade school. And as a singer, I am sure she has sung it many times before.

Perhaps this time, if she hadn’t been trying so hard to torture the song, she might have had less problem getting the lyrics right. It must have been hard as a military member, standing there at attention, to stomach the absolute mangling of the song; not only the vocals but the lyrics as well. I know that I, as a military member of 30 years, had problems sitting through it. About the best I can say for it is at least it is obvious she wasn’t lip-synching; she sang it live.

In response to the epic fail on national television, and the ensuing uproar, Christina issued the following statement. “I can only hope that everyone could feel my love for this country and the true spirit of its anthem still came through.”

Sorry Christina. I for one could not. I must admit that you did showcase your vocal excellence. You have a voice and command over that voice that most of us out here can only envy. Were you singing your latest pop hit, it would have been fantastic. I probably wouldn’t have even noticed that you messed up the lyrics.

But you weren’t singing “Car Wash”, or “Can’t Hold Us Down”, or even “Ain’t No Other Man”. You were singing the National Anthem. And that is where I think many singers go off the tracks. Whereas the songs you sing to entertain are all about you, the National Anthem isn’t.

The anthem is about all of us. It’s about those who fought and died, and fought and lived to found this great nation; a nation unlike any other before it and dare I say, unlike any other nation since. It’s about all those who have fought to keep us free since the founding. It’s about those who fought for their freedom within our country; those who fought to end slavery. About those who fought to give women the same right to vote that men had enjoyed. About those who fought for freedom and equality before the law in the marches of the 1960s. It stands for an idea and a dream embodied in the constitution of the country we live in; a constitution that those of us in uniform took an oath to uphold and defend, with our very lives if necessary.

The anthem is a solemn thing, to those of us who serve and who have served. It is a solemn thing to many Americans. It isn’t something to “jazz up”, or “make your own.” Different singers have different styles; I can accept that. But it needs to stay in the bounds of proper decorum. What’s next? Snoop Dog doing a rap version?

And that brings me to another related topic, because the singers are not the only offenders here. What about the audience?

In my day, when the anthem was played, the proper response, for those in civilian clothes, was to stand, left arm at your side, with your right hand over your heart. This was explained to me as the “civilian” salute; the civilian equivalent of the honors the military renders at the playing of the anthem. These days, when you go to a public venue where the anthem is played, typically at the start of an athletic competition of some sort, you may see some people displaying their respect in this manner. Unfortunately, many are not.

There are all sorts of activities that take place these days during the playing of the anthem; talking, fidgeting, buying popcorn, soda, and beer, or looking around and giggling at the folks who are taking the anthem seriously.

This behavior is not limited to those in the crowd. I have observed similar behavior from the members of the athletic teams on the field. Now I know that these days, many players are from countries other than the United States. And no, I don’t expect them to “assume the position” as it were, with hand over heart. It isn’t their country, no matter how good the U.S. has been to them monetarily. However I do expect a modicum of respect. It is the time to stand there quietly. Not move about, bounce in place, or scratch your crotch.

I would behave in a respectful manner were I in another country and their national anthem was being played.

I know that we, as American’s, can become exuberant and rambunctious, but the playing of the national anthem is not the place for this. Please. Save your cheering and shouts of USA, USA for after the anthem is played. And that high note I spoke of earlier, the one near the end of the song? Yes it’s high, and yes, it’s cool when the singer hits it, or even harmonizes above it, but that doesn’t mean it’s time to whistle, cheer, and clap.

Remember. The person singing it is a professional singer. They get paid to hit those notes that we appreciate so much. It’s what they do. If you want to give them a display at a concert when they hit them, then great! Do so! But the anthem is not a concert. It’s a solemn moment. Please, don’t break that moment of solemnity (and beauty) with a vulgar public display. The song is almost over at that point. Save your applause until then. And then, scream, whistle, shout, and applaud to your heart’s content.

But remember, when you do, what the anthem represents and set aside in your mind a portion of that applause for those who have given their last full measure to make it possible for us to be at whatever event we are at.

As for Christina’s rendition, I think she was a victim of not following the KISS strategy; Keep It Simple Stupid. It would not surprise me in the least if she didn’t get caught up in the vocal complexity she was attempting and forget where she was. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if she didn’t, in the heat of the moment, start adding in things she didn’t intend to originally which would only exacerbate the problem. Sad, because she really didn’t need to do that and she really should not have to begin with.

So how does she recover? I think more is needed than a simple apology. She could just go with the press release she gave and let it go at that. But I think she has more class. I have a suggestion.

Christina, you have a beautiful voice. My suggestion is a “do over.” No, you can’t rerun the Super Bowl. That performance is recorded for all time. Besides, even if you could turn back time and do it over again, I don’t think the Green Bay fans would thank you for it! But you can do the anthem again in a large public venue; perhaps as the beginning of your next concert performance. And this time do it “right”, with minimal embellishment. Just let your voice and your love of country shine through. Think Whitney Houston. No, don’t copy her performance. Just think clean, pure, and from the heart. Maybe with a few, heart-felt words beforehand.

I think if you do, you will touch the heart of America. It’s a very big heart. And it has room for a lot of forgiveness.