Monday, February 07, 2011

How to Sing the National Anthem

During high school, I read Maggie: a Girl of the Streets by Stephen Crane for an English class. For some reason I picked this book out of a bunch of other choices. I think I was high or something and thought I'd really show my class that I could take the worst possible option and make it rock. I have no idea. There were better options, I remember that. Babbit (ha ha), As I Lay Dying, Slaughterhouse-Five. I really should have picked the Vonnegut book. Maybe I figured I was saving my innocent classmates from having to read a book about prostitution. I was taking one for the team, so to speak. That's how great and unselfish I am. Always thinking of others. Yep.

In any case, I can't remember anything about the story except for one scene. Someone's in a bar with a stage, it seems like, and a performer starts singing the national anthem, and the crowd goes wild. I think they get emotional, take off their hats, and stand up. The song arouses all sorts of patriotism and sentiment, even though, if I remember correctly, the bar is mostly full of what would be considered low-class citizens who were poverty-stricken and of humble means. The point is, the national anthem moved them.

I remember thinking that there was something wrong with my generation back then, after I read that scene and saw how the national anthem could get a crowd going back during Stephen Crane's time—my generation seemed so spoiled that we could only ever think of ourselves and we had to almost be threatened to pay the proper respects to things like the American flag and the national anthem.

Well, maybe it was just that we were teenagers and didn't know any better. We'd never been tested and lots of us had never suffered much. That's what I thought then, and I thought we'd grow up and become good adults, full of understanding, wisdom, and respect.

The problem is that it seems like most of my generation hasn't changed. They're still selfish, egocentric, and ungrateful. Granted, I know lots of people in my age group who are great. They have good desires, they have their heads on straight, they're not totally focused on me, me, me, me (and by me, me, me, I mean, "Like, I'm totally the awesomest. How can I become even more cooler? Perhaps by purchasing these totally sweet jeans from American Apparel or Urban Outfitters and starting a band...etc.").

This is why it's so offensive when a modern singer decimates the national anthem in addition to performing it like they're trying to prove how awesome their vocal acrobatics are. It illustrates a particular selfishness, as though they've never even attempted to understand what happened during the war that inspired the anthem. They've never read how Francis Scott Key wrote the lyrics. They've never tried imagine the historical moment and felt the impact of the battles waged for independence and freedom.

We don't have to lose everything in a war or nearly die in a battle to feel something about the value of our country and its symbols of sacrifice and liberty. All we have to do is have a bit of imagination. If we've lost our imaginations through lack of exercise, then we're truly lost. But I think the majority of us have retained some ability there, otherwise we'd have no emotional connection to any story we read, hear, or see (on TV, you know...yes, TV. I know it seems counter-intuitive because it does most of the work...but it does ask something of us).

What I mean is that Christina Aguilera, if she wants to find redemption from her horribly selfish performance, might decide to study the history of the song. She might read the account found here, and through some kind of inspiration—a muse, a dove, an angel (like a Dickensian ghost of Christmas past, only this one takes her spiritually back to the war of 1812)—she might suddenly realize,
My word, this song, this anthem, isn't about how loud I can screech into a microphone. It's not about those stupid Mariah Carey scales and high's—it's about fearing that all is lost, that our freedoms and ideals have been robbed during the night of a long battle, a veritable attack on our Capitol. It's about being carried emotionally to the brink of despair, knowing, just knowing our enemies had won, and seconds before caving into sorrow and hopelessness, we see, through the smoke of the cannons and sudden quiet of battle that the giant flag still flies over the fort, far away on land! It's about much more than me. It's about us. And when I sing it, I'm not me. I'm a vehicle for all the voices of all the Americans, their spirits united in me, praising God, or whatever higher power each individual might believe in, for giving us this land and our freedoms. Sort of like a prayer.

Maybe she'll get that. And maybe every singer selected to sing our national anthem can do that. So next time we don't have to listen to them mangle it as they forget the words because they're more focused on sounding know, as though how they sing the national anthem might influence us to buy more of their songs or watch their movies or something. I think about the worst that can happen is that if you suck at it, we'll boycott you to death. Because, for pete's sake, that's our NATIONAL ANTHEM. Don't mess with it.


jfun said...

I agree with so much of what you said, but I just wanted to add, that there are other people responsible for deciding who and how our national anthem gets sung at what I think are stupid sporting events.

I remember when Roseanne Barr was asked to sing our national anthem in the '90s and proceeded to squeal and screech and grab her crotch amidst boos and universal disgust. My thought wasn't, "What a disrespectful bitch!!" but rather, "Who the hell asked this disrespectful bitch to sing the national anthem in the first place?!"

Christina Aguilera has been around for almost 20 years and as far as I can recall, she sings EVERY song with those "stupid Mariah Carey scales and high notes." So again, I don't think, "What a stupid bitch!" but rather, "Who the hell asked this stupid bitch to sing in the first place?" and now I ask you — What did you expect?

I didn't expect her to flub the lyrics (who would?) but I did fully expect her to screech and squeal, and that's what we got. My point is, don't be mad at Christina Aguilera for being the kind of singer she is. Rather, be mad at the producers of this stupid sporting event that asked her to sing in the first place. Especially if you didn't like it.

Not everyone can do it like Whitney Houston:

Nicole Grotepas said...

You have some good points, but I don't think it's that unreasonable of me to think that Christina Aguilera (an adult) might have some common sense. But maybe it is. I don't know her and I haven't really followed her career, so I'm not accustomed to how she sings in general.