On the home page of AOL News last week I encountered this opinion piece by Kevin Blackistone, "Time to Turn Off National Anthem Before Sports Events," in which he contends: "... if our lawmakers don't sing it every day to begin the country's business, spectators of a mere sporting event shouldn't be forced to sit through it, either, especially during the time we are living through right now."
While I agree that there is a problem, I have to disagree with his analysis. I for one look forward to hearing the National Anthem, when it's done well -- which it rarely is these days. The problem as I see it resides not in the song itself, but in the endless parade of superstars who get hired to sing and seize the moment to try and reinvent the wheel by practically reorchestrating the song.
Shrieking vocals, unnecessary runs and other empty embellishments make a moment which should feel calm and ritualistic feel too much like empty theater. They make the singing of the anthem all about the singer and less about the collective experience of the ritual itself. The performers are hardly all alone in the blame however. They are hired to DO something with the song, to create a buzz about their performance. Singer selections have become a huge PR moment for (fill in the blank) event. 'Ooooh who will be singing the national anthem this year?' has become nearly as important as what teams will be playing. Why? Is it not bad enough that we've lost the purity of the storied Cotton, Rose, and Sugar Bowl names to random corporate monacres? In the minds of many it's hardly even the National Anthem anymore. Rather it's the Christina Aguilera solo, the Jessica Simpson solo or the Cher solo. When you hype a thing so much for the person who will be performing it, of course the thing itself will lose some luster and import, but that still does not make it meaningless.
This was not precisely the point of Blackistone's piece however. Instead his complaint is less about the performance of the song and more about its content.
"O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming? And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,"' a phrase from the National Anthem, has absolutely nothing to do with sports but everything to do with war. But we want those who play, coach and comment on sports to be sensitive at a time like this when nearly 6,000 U.S. men and women have been killed fighting wars in Iraq.
I'm confused. Is Blackistone saying it should have something to do with sports? More importantly, I think he may be missing a larger point here. When Francis Scott Key saw the flag flying over Fort McHenry after a night of fierce fighting and commemorated its gallant streaming, is that really about war, or is that about survival -- the endurance of our national symbol and our nation itself?
No, sports are not war. Personally, I think sports/war metaphors are silly but little more than that and hardly worth offense. But sports are struggle. The National Anthem commemorates another kind of struggle and our nation's ability to endure. Both struggles, the one endured to preserve our nation and the ones we endure as pastime, as ritual that brings communities of people together for fun and community and celebration of what human bodies are capable of achieving are equally worth celebrating in their own right. Struggle itself is worth commemorating once it is overcome, for it has something to teach, and I'm sorry, but "America the Beautiful" and "God Bless America" just don't evoke the same feelings of survival, of a journey, of accomplishment. By the way, these are all sports values too.
As for Blackistone's assertion that "The Banner," as he calls it, was "based on an old English song about boozing,"well that's just the tune, and it was perhaps chosen as an intentional gesture so that it would be more easily accessible and memorable for a broader audience of 19th century people to sing along to. How very populist, democratic, American. Ask the innumerable Olympic athletes who have described how they got teary eyed as they heard "their" anthem tune being played at a medal ceremony, how they feel about the song. I think you will find the emotions are similar to those expressed by Veterans at a Memorial Day celebration. The song evokes something of the country that they and the flag it celebrates represent. Like it or not, there is a reason that years of attempts to change the National Anthem from the "Star Spangled Banner" to "America the Beautiful" have failed. This song, this tune has become ingrained in our national consciousness even if some people, many people forget, flub, or don't know the words.
My plea for next year's Super Bowl is not to abandon the Star Spangled Banner. Despite Mr. Blackistone's assertions to the contrary, I think it is very much relevant to the sports arena. Instead I implore the organizers of next year's event to find someone who will sing our National Anthem well and sing it straight. The power is already there in the story, in the collective recognition of the tune, and in the collective ritual standing for the national anthem provides. Just find someone who can make the act of singing it about those things and not all about themself and their vocal acrobatics please.