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The National Anthem Should Be A Sing-A-Long, Not A Performance

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For a singer, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime: singing our national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” on an international stage. And what bigger stage is there than the Super Bowl? When the soloist steps up to the mic, the eyes — and ears — of the world are paying attention. Will he or she blow it? Or make us proud?

One of the moments that made us proudest as a country was, of course, when Whitney Houston sang the national anthem at Super Bowl XXV in 1991. She was beautiful, irrepressible, patriotic, joyful. The U.S. was in the midst of the Gulf War. And that voice. There has not been anything like it since. Time truly did seem to stop for a few minutes while we all soaked it in:

And yet, as wonderful a performance as Whitney’s was, it was still that — a performance. Yet, by definition, a national anthem is meant to be sung, not listened to. And the trend of giving it to a performer to present a stylized version rather than singing it in a way that encourages all to join in is a disappointing one. It reflects the overall trend of looking at singing not as something we do ourselves but as something only the professionals can handle.

Look, I get it. Our national anthem is a difficult piece of music, spanning a range of an octave and a fifth. Start it too high or low, and you’re in big trouble. The words are easily mixed up. But it is our national anthem, and as such, every American citizen should learn and be able to sing it. And if all we ever do is listen to it, rather than join in the singing, that is not going to happen (especially given that the direction of public schooling makes it highly unlikely that children are learning it in elementary music class these days).

I didn’t watch the Super Bowl last night. But I did tune in to see what Reba McEntire would do with the national anthem. And once again, I was disappointed. I don’t have anything against Reba. She’s a national treasure. But like so many others, she sang the song in a way that only she could sing it, to demonstrate her vocal prowess and her own, personal style, and once again, everyone else was left to listen, not join in. I will give her credit for singing it in the proper rhythm (3/4 time, not 4/4 time, for the musicians out there). However, she sang it in a key that is too low for most women (if they take it up an octave, it is too high). In addition, throughout the rendition, there were multiple melismas (singing one syllable on a series of notes — for one example, listen to the word “free”). Again, this is part of her style, and what makes her the performer she is, but it does not lend itself to people singing along.

My personal preference is to have the anthem led by a choir. A choir, as a group of singers, is not able to add in a bunch of solo stylings. They have to stay together. They have to sing in rhythm. And because they are already a group, they invite the rest of us to join.

That said, there have been a few solo renditions over the years that demonstrate what I mean and lend themselves to singing along. Here are two. Interestingly, both of these were sung at an MLB game. The first, Billy Joel, is unaccompanied. Notice that he sings the anthem straight, in rhythm, without introducing a lot of the stylistic elements he is known for. The voice is there, and it’s undeniably Billy’s, but he dials back the personality and flair and just sings:

Another of my favorites is Linda Ronstadt, who sang accompanied by an organ. Yes, she makes one little error in the lyrics, but that almost makes it more endearing:

The national anthem belongs to all of us. The primary purpose of singing it should be to communicate the text and draw us together as Americans. That doesn’t happen when the singer makes it all about himself or herself.

To whoever is up next, whether at the World Series, Super Bowl, or somewhere else, please consider doing something truly revolutionary, and sing it straight. Maybe you’ll start a new trend.   


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