Before you sing the national anthem in public, you have to take this into account: If you’re going to strain for the free, you have to be brave. As a singer who has been called upon to perform this more than once, I approach those final stanzas with dread. It takes all you’ve got to push a half-way pleasant tone through the forced grimace of that narrow and ugly vowel—you sing “free” and feel anything but. What should be a triumphant, patriotic apex usually inspires more relief than catharsis, for both listener and singer.
For years there have been calls to replace the national anthem with something more appropriate, more modern, more singable. Suggestions have ranged from the stalwart “America the Beautiful” to, most recently, Bill Wither’s “Lean on Me.” As physical monuments around the country are being dismantled or questioned for their relevance, shouldn’t the same consideration be given to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” that most ubiquitous of American musical monuments?
The idea of musical monumentality inevitably evokes impressions of grand symphonic gestures, blaring horns and sonic grandiosity. National anthems, however, are rarely grandiose in their own right, or even notable as musical compositions. They owe their monumentality to their status as deliberately fixed emblems, much like the placement of statues in town squares.
What they lack in physical permanence, they gain in mobility. At political and sporting events, anthems are collectively sung to affirm national identity and set a patriotic tone. In moments of public anxiety, anthems can emerge spontaneously to self-soothe and create sonic solidarity.
Historically, many of the most stalwart national anthems arose from times of crisis and burgeoning awareness of national identity. “La Marseillaise” emerged as a symbol of pride during the French Revolution. The unofficial anthem of England, “God Save the King,” was first printed and sung communally during the Jacobite Rebellion. Belgium’s “La Brabançonne” was penned during the struggle for liberation from Holland.
“The Star-Spangled Banner,” too, emerged from a time of crisis, when it seemed as if the newly forged United States was losing the “Second War for Independence” from the British. What had begun in 1812 as a conflict over American resistance to trade restrictions and desire for territorial expansion soon turned aggressive; the defeat and abdication of Napoleon in Europe in early April 1814 allowed the British to reconvene and deploy their formidable navy against the former colonists. Encouraged by their conquest of Washington and burning of the White House, the British turned their sights on the city of Baltimore, which, unlike the capitol, was defended by a formidable, star-shaped fort at the mouth of the Patapsco River.
Early on the morning of September 13, 1814, British warships began a punishing 27-hour bombardment of Ft. McHenry. (Among the munitions used were the new Congreve Rockets, which inspired the phrase “rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air.”) Despite the barrage, the troops in the fort held fast. In the harbor, held against his will on a British warship while trying to attain the release of a colleague, young lawyer Francis Scott Key witnessed the attack and feared for the worst. When, on the morning of September 14, Key saw the flag raised over the ramparts he penned the now-famous text. Though it only officially became the U.S. national anthem in 1931, the song had been in public use as a national emblem since the end of the nineteenth century.
There is something distinctly American about the anthem that distinguishes it from its European counterparts. As musical works, most of the European anthems are designed to inspire the solidarity that arises from collective vocalization through easily singable melodies and texts. The American anthem, on the other hand, almost willfully frustrates attempts at communal singing. The melody demands individual commitment, even courage.
Those voices brave enough to sing it can’t hide in the crowd—their voices are compelled to emerge through the ever-escalating vocal line. The final high note on “free” becomes a gesture of stubborn exceptionalism for those who make it that far.
Not that many take the chance; more often than not, we assign a celebrity to display this exceptionality while the rest of us mouth along in the crowd, unable to fully participate in the national gesture. Even professionals are not immune to the perils of the melody—there is a certain glee, at public sporting events, in witnessing a catastrophic performance. The safely passive public is quick to chastise a performer who stumbles over the lyrics, or who sings off-key. Macy Gray is jeered, the Eli Young Band is booed, Kat DeLuna’s career is ended. So while the anthem necessitates a certain expression of individualism, beware if you cannot fulfill its demands. We don’t like losers. As far as ideological enactment, there could perhaps be no better musical monument than “The Star-Spangled Banner” to exemplify the Manifest Destiny ethos of a country that celebrates a vicious form of survivalist capitalism and homogenizing self-aggrandizement at the expense of community.
All the problematic aspects of the national anthem certainly make it a candidate for replacement. They have also made it, historically, a space for opposition. From Jose Feliciano’s controversial guitar rendition, that stripped the anthem of its march rhythm in favor of flower-power intimacy; to Roseanne Barr’s irreverently squawked rejection of grandeur (and singing altogether); to perhaps the most famous assault on the anthem, Jimi Hendrix’s reworking at Woodstock in 1969. Hendrix morphs the melody from ecstatic, wordless vocalization to a barrage of explosions and screams—it’s as if the war in Vietnam were being channeled through his guitar for a glorious, sonic exorcism.
Resistance to all that the anthem enacts need not be sonic. Because the song itself resists easy participation through singing, the behavior of listening bodies as patriotic performers becomes all the more important. When those bodies choose individual gestures, like kneeling, to define their participation, their behavior challenges mute obedience. Colin Kaepernick and so many after him transform listening into an active musical act, a gesture that actively alters the space where the expression of musical monumentality takes place. Their bodies say what they cannot sing.
Perhaps it is time to retire “The Star-Spangled Banner” in favor of a more singable, less problematic tune. And yet because monuments, musical as well as physical, represent much more than the events they commemorate, they resist easy exchange. Singing that America is beautiful won’t necessarily make it so, and appealing to Americans to “lean on each other” will not necessarily create solidarity.
Until we reckon with the ideologies it represents, this anthem might be the one that we still need, or even deserve, not just as a reminder of all that it seeks to monumentalize, but as an opportunity—through performance—to question and deconstruct the roles it seeks to enforce.
Ginger Dellenbaugh lectures at The New School about music, politics, and the voice. A trained opera singer, she performed for over a decade in Europe and the United States. She has written for, among others, The Oxford American, Spike Art Quarterly, and The Interdisciplinary Journal of Voice Studies. Ginger is currently completing a Ph.D. in musicology at Yale University.