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 notes....it'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 awesome....you 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.