If you forget the words to your own song, you can always claim artistic license. Forget the words to the national anthem, and you’re screwed. —Lyle Lovett
I’m looking at recent headlines and having an incredible sense of having been here before. Once again, we’re arguing about the National Anthem. This instance happens to be the result of some random football player exercising his right to sit during the pre-game ritual. This isn’t the first time someone has done that. It won’t be the last. This whole incident has been played out multiple times during my life. Yet, for all the talk, nothing has actually changed.
I’ll admit that, as a musician, I rather like the music portion of The Star-Spangled Banner. I like that not just anyone can sing the song well. The song harmonizes well when arranged correctly. The melody is open to a lot of personal interpretation. As a piece of music, The Star-Spangled Banner works well for me.
However, as a national anthem, the song sucks. The language is stilted and the entire third verse is offensive. Textually, the song doesn’t so much say, “Hooray for the United States,” as it says, “Hey, we didn’t get beaten this time.” As a nation, we have been divided over the anthem since the middle of the 19th century. Continuing to force it upon generation after generation just for the sake of tradition removes any real meaning. What we sing at the beginning of ballgames and political events today does not represent us. We need a national anthem that speaks for us all.
Why Have A National Anthem?
If we’re going to get all riled up about the issue of a national anthem, we first must consider why we have an anthem in the first place. Why is it an anthem and not just a national song? I don’t find it unrealistic should we just have a national jingle. After all, we are one of the most commercially driven and materialistic people on the planet. Perhaps an anthem isn’t what we need at all.
Most music dictionaries define an anthem as a song that identifies the ideals and values of a specific group of people. For example, when our friends directly to the North of us sing Oh, Canada it’s pretty obvious from the start what the song is about and who it represents. Russia’s national anthem (which is not without similar controversies itself) is also highly recognizeable. That one starts out:
Russia – our sacred homeland,
Russia – our beloved country.
A mighty will, a great glory –
These are your heritage for all time!
Sort of. The translation is a little rough, but the general sentiment is there. My point is that an anthem makes it clear that it holds a relationship with a specific group of people.
The Star-Spangled Banner doesn’t exactly fit that definition. People only relate the song to the country because we keep playing it every time we decide to get sweaty or have an election. The song does not contain the name of the country. The song does not represent our ideals. Our song is about a flag not getting blown to smithereens. That’s it. So, it fails in the definition of an anthem.
A National Anthem Should Be Inclusive
Singer/songwriter John Legend, who I respect, went on record yesterday as saying he believes we should change the national anthem to America The Beautiful. A lot of people have made the argument for Katherine Lee Bates’ song before. At the very least, it is certainly more descriptive of the country and contains the word “America.” That’s more than the current anthem does. Plus, it is easier to sing and is already well-known. There’s just one little problem in the chorus:
God shed his grace on thee.
Uhm, yeah, there are going to be a lot of people have a problem with that reference to a specific deity. The case isn’t made any stronger by the fact that the original poem has at least eight verses, one of which contains a phrase some might find a bit frightening:
God shed his grace on thee;
‘Til nobler men keep once again
Thy whiter jubilee!
What the fuck? Okay, if we give Miss Bates the benefit of the doubt, she might have meant “whiter” in the sense of more heavenly, maybe. Still, the inference here is totally unacceptable in a national anthem. The same is true for God Bless America and I’m Proud To Be An American. The religious references divide us, not unite us.
Some (Slightly) Better Suggestions
We have some existing songs within the American catalog of music that have the potential for being a great national anthem. If we’re going to get all caught up in the flag thing, then perhaps the late George M. Cohan has the answer:
You’re a grand old flag
You’re a high-flying flag
And forever in peace may you wave.
You’re the emblem of
The land I love,
The home of the free and the brave.
Ev’ry heart beats true
‘Neath the Red, White and Blue,
Where there’s never a boast or brag.
But should auld acquaintance be forgot,
Keep your eye on the grand old flag.
The song only works, however, if we just adopt the chorus. The first verse has an uncomfortable reference to, “Way down yonder in the land of cotton.” I can understand a lot of people not being particularly fond of that little element.
Perhaps we just do away with lyrics altogether. After all, that seems to be what largely upsets folks about any of the songs. Maybe John Philip Sousa’s The Stars and Stripes Forever, which is already our national march, could fit the bill. We like singing, though, and again, it doesn’t match the definition of an anthem.
Time To Write Our Own
We need a new national anthem. We need a song that is singable, one that unites us rather than divides us. The United States deserves a national anthem that actually contains the name of the country in its text. A song that can be sung by little children or mass choirs should be the goal of our effort. Any anthem representing our country needs to reflect all of us, not just the privileged few. To have a song that marginalizes so many of our own people is unacceptable.
We have too many wonderful and talented composers in our country for us to not have one kick-ass national anthem. We need to get behind the concept and tell Congress, who ordains such things, that we demand a new song. Maybe have John Legend write it, or maybe Beyoncé and Taylor Swift could team up. Anyone accept Kanye. Please, don’t let that idiot near our national anthem.
For too long, we have argued and fussed over a national anthem that fails to represent us well. We need to get over the whole aspect of tradition and write something new; something that gives us all a reason to stand with pride and sing.
Or maybe we just need a jingle.