Since the moment it became the official national anthem of the United States in 1931, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” has had its share of critics. It can be hard to sing. Its lyrics feature words long removed from our daily vocabulary. And, in recent decades, celebrity performers often take far too many liberties with the song — sometimes with truly horrifying results. Now, amidst the nigh-insatiable appetites of the cancel culture mobs, the pressure is mounting to abandon the anthem once and for all.
Calls to cancel the “The Star-Spangled Banner” have support from the American Civil Liberties Union and the editor-in-chief of Yahoo Music, and are featured in the Los Angeles Times. Yet despite the passion of the hate directed at the anthem, the arguments fall flat. “The Star-Spangled Banner” shouldn’t be canceled — it should be sung louder than ever.
Rubbing Their Noses in It
The most recent major volley fired at the anthem comes courtesy of The New York Times Magazine writer Jody Rosen. Rosen throws every conceivable complaint he can conjure at the anthem, hoping enough of the mud he slings will hit its target to conceal the fact that his effort is just another virtue-signaling hit-job on an American icon.
Rosen castigates the anthem for having a British melody and for what he calls “Anglophile” lyrics too “ornate” for “normal” Americans to understand. First, indeed, the tune used by “The Star-Spangled Banner” is John Stafford Smith’s “To Anacreon in Heaven,” a British song that was performed at pubs and men’s social clubs.
But this isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. What’s more subversive and snarky than using a drinking song of the nation you defeated in a war of independence to celebrate another later victory over that same nation? That the tune of the U.S. anthem is British isn’t a flaw, it’s a delightful musical example of 19th-century “trolling.”
Second, the anthem features, at most, six words that may be unfamiliar to some Americans: “hailed,” “gleaming,” “perilous,” “ramparts,” “gallantly,” and “spangled.” That’s it — six words (maybe) in the entire song. Not only is this not the end of the world, but it’s also more of a condemnation of our failed public school system than an indictment of the lyrics or its lyricist. Of course, the lyricist is the main vehicle the cancelers want to use to replace America’s super-patriotic anthem with a song about friendship or a sleep-inducing, nihilistic, neo-Marxist earworm.
Separating Art from the Artist
Yes, Francis Scott Key, the man behind the lyrics of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” was a slaveholder. But just as Jefferson and Washington must be understood within the framework of their times with all of the complexities involved, Key should be viewed with proper context and evaluated holistically for the complete life he lived and contributions he made.
Conveniently left out of the attacks on Key is how his opinions on the horrendous practice of slavery softened over time. He began to condemn the slave trade, joined other abolitionists in the movement to secure a free African nation for former black Americans, and represented slaves and former slaves in court for free in the course of his law practice.
By the end of his life, Key had freed at least six of his former slaves. As for a seemingly pro-slavery reference in the rarely sung third verse, Scott’s use of the word “slave” was used to insult any British soldier who was a lackey of the monarch in London. Even if he hadn’t begun to make amends for his pro-slavery positions, however, the song that bears Key’s lyrics would still be worth applauding and honoring.
Many on the left now imply, or even openly advocate, that art can only be admired and appreciated if its artist lived a blameless and perfect life. If this were the universal standard, we’d have no art, no architecture, no books, and no music left that would be deemed “suitable” to enjoy.
One can still love Wagner’s operas despite the composer’s deplorable antisemitism, the film “Gladiator” notwithstanding Russell Crowe’s history of fightin’ ‘round the world, and Ernest Hemingway’s novels even though several sources confirm he willingly volunteered to spy for the Soviets. In the same vein, we can, nay, love the American anthem even though Key was a less than wholly virtuous man by the standards of the 21st century.
Not Because it Is Easy, But Because it Is Hard
The vocal range of “The Star-Spangled Banner” is an octave-and-a-fifth. For those not versed in music theory: that’s large. Starting the anthem too high will doom an unsuspecting vocalist to humiliation a minute later. It’s even riskier for female vocalists who try to perform the entire song in “chest voice” without a strong upper “belt.” The challenging range of the piece, however, can be mitigated by a safe, lower, starting pitch.
Undeniably, it can be cringe-inducing when a singer changes key at “and the rockets red glare…” or goes flat at the final “land of the free!” Yet when a vocalist can deftly handle the anthem’s demands, the result is a thing of beauty. When a true talent like Whitney Houston performs the “Star-Spangled Banner,” the song becomes something altogether transcendent.
Houston’s 1991 Super Bowl performance isn’t just the all-time greatest anthem performance, it’s one of the singular best vocal performances of the modern era. It’s what happens when a once in a generation talent meets a formidable artistic obstacle and then knocks it out of the park.
American’s aren’t supposed to shy away from hard things; we’re supposed to embrace them. If we fail, we dust ourselves off and hurl ourselves at the task until victory is won. Not every vocalist will be able to properly “nail” the U.S. anthem, but when you’re in the audience when someone does, it’s more than worth it. When a combination of ability and hard work triumphs over the anthem’s demands, “The Star-Spangled Banner” ceases to be “just music” — it becomes a different kind of thing entirely.
That Our Flag Was Still There
The lyrics of the U.S. national anthem carry more weight now than when they were composed back in 1814. Originally, “The Star-Spangled Banner” was a song of relieved praise celebrating the survival of Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore in the War of 1812. It was an inspiring event in its own right. Now, seen through the prism of all that has transpired since that day, Key’s lyrics reach beyond their years.
It’s no longer just the sight of Old Glory standing through a British naval bombardment. The steadfast flag of Key’s poem is the flag of the Union standing tall after repulsing Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg. It’s the tattered but resilient flag flying on the U.S.S. St. Louis following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
It’s the U.S. flag raised over Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima by six U.S. Marines. It’s Buzz Aldrin saluting the Stars and Stripes in the Sea of Tranquility. It’s the three brave New York City firemen who raised the American flag while standing in the rubble of Ground Zero on September 11. It’s pro-democracy Hong Kongers waving the American flag in defiance of tyranny and in acclaim and affirmation for everything it stands for.
The “Star-Spangled Banner” is not a violent call to arms like the French “La Marseillaise,” nor an ode to the ruling monarch like “God Save The Queen.” America’s anthem is a tribute to faithful perseverance through hard times. It is a reminder even after all it has faced, America remains. Through civil strife, economic depression, or global war, the flag of the United States stands strong and stalwart.
The sight of the American flag is a comfort to the hurting, a symbol of hope to millions, and a welcome sight upon returning from abroad. It straightens our backs and swells our hearts. The anthem manages to capture all of these feelings with a soaring melody worthy of our nation’s boundless horizons. America needs more patriotism right now, not less, and the “Star-Spangled Banner” is an essential part of the critical renewal of that great effort.