Friday, July 1, 2011

Our National Anthem


How much do you know about our national anthem? Here’s a very brief quiz.
  1. Fill in the blanks: “Whose broad stripes and bright stars, through the ________ ________.”
  2. Francis Scott Key wrote the lyrics:
    1. While safely ensconced in a gentlemen’s club
    2. From the front lines of a battlefield, in his head
    3. After dining with the enemy as their guest
    4. As a POW
  3. The tune of this song
    1. Was completely original—a fine example of American virtuosity
    2. Was taken from an ancient Gregorian chant
    3. Was taken from an old English drinking song
    4. Is a perfect example of basso lamento
  4. The battle this song refers to was part of:
    1. The Revolutionary War
    2. The US Civil War
    3. The War of 1812
    4. Not a war at all, but a “police action”
  5. A rampart is
    1. Some arcane architectural thing, kind of like a flying buttress
    2. Like a carport
    3. Something which is unchecked or unrestrained
    4. A military fortification
The answers to this quiz are sprinkled throughout this post. If you fear you didn’t do very well, don’t sweat it: according to recent surveys, sixty-one percent of Americans are unable to recall all the words, and only thirty-nine percent could answer question #1 above.

Now, if you think I’m going to take our fellow Americans to task for failing to be literate in this hallowed national treasure, think again. Before researching this topic, I’d have scored 2/5 on that quiz—a solid F. In this post, I will explain why I think our national anthem is completely lame and needs to be replaced. I’ll even make some suggestions for what we should replace it with.

The war theme

The one thing everybody grasps about “The Star-Spangled Banner” is that it’s about war. Right off the bat, I find that an unsuitable topic for our national anthem. There is so much to celebrate about this country—our diversity, our (relative) social mobility, our tradition of innovation, the abundance of natural resources we enjoy—and we have to dwell on our success in war? Perhaps this topic is so widely tolerated (and, by many, embraced) because the language of the song is somewhat abstract—“rockets’ red glare” doesn’t call to mind any precise battlefield imagery. Imagine if we updated the song:

ooooAnd our predator drones
ooooTracked them right to their homes
ooooAnd shelled them with death
ooooDon’t you mess with U.S.!

We’d all feel a bit tacky singing that, don’t you think?

But wait, you’re saying. The U.S. was under siege, and this song is about our resilience—the flag, man, it was still there! We were just defending ourselves, and this was our finest hour! Well, not really. The song is based on a poem about a particular coastal American fort being attacked by a British warship, the HMS Tonnant. The poet, Francis Scott Key, had dined onboard the Tonnant as a guest of three British officers; he was negotiating the release of a few prisoners, one of whom was being detained for having “placed rowdy stragglers under citizen’s arrest.” Now, before I continue, I’d like to point out that “Rowdy Stragglers” would make a great name for a rock band (along with “Stuffed Russian” and “Hard Floor Tool”—but I digress). Key’s hosts didn’t let him leave the ship right away because they were bombarding our fort at the time. (Sure, they were keeping him from ruining their element of surprise, but they were also, arguably, sparing his life.) When Key saw the flag still flying the next morning, he was moved to write the poem “In Defense of Fort McHenry,” which later became the song “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Was this our finest hour? Not really—this battle wasn’t pivotal, like Gettysburg. What did it mean, for that flag to be flying? Well, the British hadn’t taken the fort—at least not yet. But they had succeeded in burning our capitol to the ground, and had probably erected their flag in countless other places. It’s not like some binary thing where if our flag were still there that morning we’d won the war, and if it wasn’t we’d lost. In his poem Key fixated on a symbol, and his celebration of that symbol makes the whole episode symbolic. A poem that’s symbolic of a symbol—where’s the reality? It’s like a divide-by-zero error. Okay, fine, in this particular battle, this one fort, the little-heralded Fort McHenry, survived the night—but who cares, when the White House had been fricking torched? If anything, this poem is symbolic of Key’s capacity for self-delusion. Do we as a nation want to go along with that?

Meanwhile, the greater conflict—the War of 1812—wasn’t even our nation’s noblest effort. If our national anthem has to be about war, why not make it about the Civil War, which was a much more important turning point for this country, as it helped us to lead the modern world in denouncing slavery?

The War of 1812 is one that we declared on England, and not because they were trying to, say, take back our country. This war was about a grab bag of issues: trade tensions; British support for Indian (i.e., Native American) raids; British obstruction of U.S. expansion into the Northwest Territory and Canada; and British impressment. Impressment was the practice of drafting citizens into the British navy; young Englishmen could escape it by defecting to the U.S. British soldiers occasionally boarded American ships to try to capture these defectors, which the U.S. found an annoyance and an insult to our national sovereignty. A lot of issues, sure, but it’s not like we had no other choice than to wage war. Meanwhile, the War of 1812 didn’t even end up being much of a success: American losses were far higher than British, and the treaty ending it didn’t really get us anything. So our national anthem commemorates a minor battle in an arguably unnecessary war that we didn’t win, against a country who has been our stalwart ally for like the last hundred years. Sweet.

(Incidentally, the tune is that of an old English drinking song, titled “The Anacreontic Song.” “Anacreontic refers to “the manner of the poems of Anacreon, especially being convivial or amatory in subject.” Anacreon was an ancient Greek poet noted for his songs praising love and wine. A sample of this song’s lyrics: “And there, with good Fellows, we’ll learn to intwine the Myrtle of VENUS with BACCHUS’S Vine.” Dim the lights!)

Lousy lyrics

Subject matter aside, the lyrics of our national anthem are really, really weak. Line by line, the song is overblown and bombastic, and riddled with outdated and redundant language that means nothing to the modern American. In case you’re among the majority who don’t know all the words, click here.

Two words into the song, we’re already in trouble: “Oh, say.” Nobody in the U.S. uses this phrase. “Oh, say, could you pass the salt?” “Oh, say, have you heard of that band, Hootie & the Blowfish?” The only people who say “Oh, say” are the ignorant types pretending to talk like a gay man (or rather, how they imagine a gay man would talk). The last thing we need in our anthem is anything related to such stupid stereotypes.

Moving on to “by the dawn’s early light,” we run smack-dab into the song’s first redundancy. Dawn, by definition, is early. Then, consider the phrasing of “Can you see … what so proudly we hailed.” Nobody talks like this, or even writes like this. How would you even diagram that sentence? Key might as well have gone all the way and wrote “that which so proudly we hailed.” Americans value concise, efficient language: subject, verb, object. We say, “Have you seen my car keys?” and not “Oh, say, have you seen what so very much I need to start up the car?” Pompous, flowery language has long been associated with poetry, sure—but old, stale, bad poetry. Modern(ist) American poetry can be so much more efficient (for example, consider Ezra Pound’s “apparition of these faces in the crowd/ Petals on a wet, black bough.”)

Meanwhile, the verb “hail” (as in salute) has had an unfortunate connotation ever since World War II. It’s hard to think “hail” without “Sieg Heil” or “Heil Hitler” lurking in the shadows. The act of hailing a cab is one thing; the word “hail” is another. If you don’t grasp my meaning, try this: next time you see a flag, turn to the guy next to you and say, “Hail the flag!” and check out his response.

Moving on to the next phrase: “twilight’s last gleaming.” Again, it’s needlessly wordy. “At dusk” is what an American would say. Then: “Whose broad stripes and bright stars … were so gallantly streaming?” Since no other country, in 1812, had both stars and stripes on their flag, this is clearly a rhetorical question, and about as sophisticated as “Who’s a little kitty? Hmm? Who’s the kitty? Was it a wittle kitty?” And note the needless filler adjective: broad stripes. Compared to what? Frankly, I’d say the Union Jack has broader stripes. And so what—is broad better? Is there some other flag out there with stingily narrow stripes? And “bright stars”? I mean, they’re white. It’s like an ad for laundry detergent that gives you brighter whites—the imagery is totally uninspired. The line finishes up with another redundancy: “perilous fight.” Aren’t all fights perilous? If it isn’t perilous, it’s really more of a spat, isn’t it?

And now, onto “O’er the ramparts we watched.” First off, I have to wonder how many Americans, singing this song before a ball game, are thinking “o’er” (that is, “over”) vs. “or,” which makes no sense at all. For the listener, these ramparts—whatever they are—must seem like some kind of alternative, to … what? Throw in a piece of fabric that is not just streaming, but doing so “gallantly,” and you’ve got a salad of grandiloquent words that is somehow supposed to make us feel patriotic.

And then we get to the really silly part. So far, the poem has established a simple idea (though in such complicated language many people probably didn’t catch it): it’s dawn, and the flag that we saluted last night is still flying (as Scott could see, above the fort’s rampart—i.e., defensive wall—from the British ship). Ergo, the fort survived the bombardment (or at least, the flag did, though for all Scott knew everybody at the fort was dead). Now we’re told that because of the rockets’ red glare and the bombs bursting in air, the night wasn’t completely dark, which “gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.” Well, did we really need proof? Couldn’t we have inferred that the flag was there all night, simply because it was still there in the morning? Or was Scott Key just gushing about how reassured he felt that those zany British pranksters hadn’t stolen our flag during the night, taken its photo in front of Bob’s Big Boy, and then returned it by morning?

On to the final two lines. I’ll concede that, despite another instance of “Oh, say,” the strange word “spangled,” and another confusing “o’er,” the song finishes well. The last two lines are by far the strongest, and are probably responsible for most of the nationalist feeling that the song does manage to inspire. But two okay lines does not a good song make, any more than the admittedly tasty soft-serve cone at McDonald’s can be said to cap off a good meal.

(For a very funny but rather dark spoof on the war theme of our anthem, click here.)


There is precedent for a nation changing its national anthem. Spain, for example, abandoned the lyrics to its old anthem, “La Marcha Granadera,” which were associated with its former right-wing dictator, Francisco Franco. Spain kept the tune, though, and in 2007 launched a competition to come up with new lyrics. (Though there were 7,000 entries, the contest was abandoned.)

There have been efforts in this country (such as this petition) to replace our national anthem with something less bellicose such as “America the Beautiful.” I have some issues with this suggestion. For one thing, after hearing my daughter learn “American the Beautiful” on the piano, I realize it isn’t a pretty enough tune to withstand much repetition—it’s easy to get sick of. Meanwhile, this song’s lyrics aren’t that great themselves. The opening phrase “O beautiful for spacious skies” always throws me: what does it even mean? Another problem with this suggestion is that our national anthem is most often played before sporting events, where “America the Beautiful” would be a bit too mellow. As one blogger put it “‘America, the Beautiful’ is lovely, but those images of purple mountain majesties and fruited plains may be too lyrical to incite the requisite ‘kill ‘em on the field’ spirit of college ball.”

(Oddly, the tradition of playing the national anthem before a ball game has become almost a rule. A university in Indiana that is affiliated with the Mennonite church decided to seek out an alternative to “Star-Spangled Banner” to play before games, and perhaps not surprisingly stepped on some toes. A right-wing website called “Personal Liberty Digest” described this decision with the headline “Goshen College Bans ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’” (a fanatic-baiting strategy if I ever saw one).

A new song

I think we need an all-new song that reflects America and (to quote Malcolm X) “talks right down to earth in a language that everyone here can easily understand.” I have three proposals.

Proposal One – A nod to the Brits

First, as an apology to the British for bagging on them via our anthem at so many thousands of sporting events, we could stick with the current anthem’s scheme and write new lyrics to a popular British tune. We all remember how moving Sir Elton John’s tribute to Princess Diana was back in 1997; couldn’t we find another of John’s great songs to adapt? We could make the song our own by summoning, in the lyrics, our famously American non-apologetic (or faux-apologetic) national pride. Here is how we might start a new anthem set to the tune of “Your Song.”

ooooSo forgive us for living, we didn’t ask to be born.
ooooYeah, we use too much fuel, and we eat too much corn.
ooooBut anyway, screw it—we’ll just do as we please,
ooooLiving lives full of comfort and relative ease.
ooooWe hope you don’t mind, we hope you don’t mind
ooooThat we’re leading the way.
ooooHow wonderful life is in U.S. of A!

Proposal Two – An American tune

On second thought, we don’t need the British to make a great song. Even if they’re an ally, we should really celebrate our own musical tradition, and base our anthem on a famous song by a musical act whose music just about every American adores. Can we all agree that Simon & Garfunkel are brilliant? Here’s a suggestion for the beginning of an adaptation of “Mrs. Robinson.”

ooooUnited States of America
ooooThe world loves you more than you will know
ooooWhoa, whoa, whoa.
ooooGod bless this fine place, America,
ooooThree hundred million people wanna say.
ooooHey hey hey.

Proposal Three - Rap

The problem with the Simon & Garfunkel idea is that their music stemmed from a folk tradition that was not uniquely American. Plus, Folk is a bit too mellow for sports stadium purposes.

Wouldn’t the ultimate national anthem represent a vigorous musical genre that was invented entirely within our borders? And what could be a prouder or more American musical form than rap? A fringe benefit would be that the singer at the ball park wouldn’t run the risk of being off-key or having his or her voice crack (which is not uncommon given the famously difficult vocal range required by “Star-Spangled Banner”). Imagine an anthem sung (well, rapped) to the tune (well, to the beat) of “Cold Lampin’ with Flavor” by Public Enemy:

ooooI’m American, ‘merican, full-blown American,
ooooAnd proud to say it—it’s not embarrassin’.
ooooThis here’s the land of the free, you know...
ooooBrave as citizens ever can be, yo.
ooooFrom the beaches of gold California
ooooRight through the ripe green fields of corn, yea,
ooooThis is a land well worth our protectin’,
ooooFull of proud folks who be never defectin’.
ooooFeared and respected, we’re all that we can be
ooooLove us or leave us alone, namby-pambies!


Needless to say, I don’t expect this post to bring about any change. Our national anthem is pretty firmly entrenched, and Goshen College’s effort to replace it (not even as our anthem, but just as the song to play before games) got a lot of people’s dander up, to judge by the comments posted on the “Personal Liberty Digest” article. But I hope I’ve persuaded you that our great nation deserves a better song as its anthem than the “Star-Spangled Banner.” If nothing else, I hope I’ve helped you feel totally fine about not knowing the words.

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