Few things are more entertaining than defenses of the indefensible, as was proven by the charge of the lite brigade into the blathersphere earlier this month to defend the honor of the United States’ National Anthem against the interpretive menace of pop star Christina Aguilera. Watching the self-styled patriots take up arms to safeguard the honor of a jocular 18th-century drinking song fitted with third-rate amateur poetry is about as hopeless and hilarious as it gets.
The Super Bowl tempest in a 16-ounce plastic cup filled with Miller Lite (which would have run you ten bucks at Cowboy Stadium) spawned by Aguilera’s alleged mistreatment of the Star Spangled Banner shows how patriotism and bad aesthetics can together reach spectacular levels of absurdity.
According to the most vigilant protectors of the national hymn, sticking to the tune demonstrates the proper respect for its patriotic content. Aguilera’s exercise in musical decoration was repeatedly likened to “trampling on our flag” by singing as a “cheap pop song” rather than an ode to America. This line of thought ignores the fact that nearly a millennium of musicians capable of reading notated music have shown their devotion to melodies far more enduring than our anthem by elaborating and decorating them. To invest one’s creative energy in a supposedly immutable piece of music can better be figured as a sincere form of respect. Even sacred melodies — Gregorian chants — thought by some to stem from God himself have been enlivened and embroidered by countless imaginations and voices.
In spite, or perhaps because, of its outrageous excess, I found Aguilera’s solo confrontation with the Star Spangled Banner, filled as it was with its spontaneous effusions of ecstatic melisma, the musical highpoint of the Super Bowl evening. She sank her ultra-white teeth into the arpeggios of the anthem and ripped and yowled at the phrase-endings like a peroxide cockatoo tearing the stuffing from an Uncle Sam doll. The Super Bowl and its entire cultural context are so extreme it is only fitting that the national anthem should get similarly demonstrative treatment.
Aguilera was also tripped up by words that have been bungled far more badly than her “twilight’s last reaming.” But this vivid — and fortuitously anti-war — image was deemed less egregious than her florid vocalizations. A more penetrating and paranoid criticism of her performance might have pointed out how with her explosive improvisations she smuggled something of the style of Islamic cantillation into the holiest Sunday in the national commercial calendar. The call to the kickoff was in fact an homage to the call to prayer. That is the real threat of allowing the unadorned human voice free rein: not even a full-body search can discover and defuse a musical I.E.D.
As all Americans know in their hearts and throats the real problem is that the tune, elevated to its status as national anthem only in 1931, has a nearly unsingable one-and-half octave range marked out be large intervals. The melody—if you can call it that—came to life as the hymn of the Anacreontic Society of London, a men’s club founded in the 18th-century and made up mostly of amateur musicians. The poem was concocted by the Anacreontic Society’s President Ralph Tomlinson, doubtless with goblet in one hand and pen in the other, to be sung to the tune by John Stafford Smith:
To ANACREON in Heav'n, where he sat in full Glee,
A few Sons of Harmony sent a Petition,
That He their Inspirer and Patron wou'd be;
When this Answer arriv'd from the JOLLY OLD GRECIAN
“Voice, Fiddle, and Flute,
“No longer be mute,
“I'll lend you my Name and inspire you to boot,
“And, besides, I'll instruct you like me, to intwine
“The Myrtle of VENUS with BACCHUS's Vine
* * *
First published in the midst of the Anglo-American hostilities in the late 1770s, the Anacreontic Song was popular on both sides of the Atlantic, which itself demonstrates how the political and ideological origins of the revolution and its aftermath hardly dented the cultural affinities between the parent state and its rebellious child.
The group’s song collections extol the joys of singing, drinking, and avoiding women and the snares of love; this fare is filled out by a few military songs and marches, an attempt to prove that its members were not just a bunch of louche layabouts, but had at some point proven their mettle on the battlefield, or would, in theory, have been willing to do so. Many of the melodies have a reeling and rambunctious penchant for the wide swings of the Anacreontic Song, as in the fine volume of 1810 assembled by the club’s William Kitchiner, whose best song totters tipsily through the characteristic sentiment expressed in its shoulder-slapping doggerel: “Zeno, Plato, Aristotle / We’re all lovers of the bottle.”
One crucial difference between the original tune and the version the Americans still foolishly attempt to sing is an alteration which chromatically raises the second syllable of “early” of “dawn’s early light); it was this melodic turn that encouraged Aguilera’s first flight of fancy. This more decisive, American figure gives the national anthem a militaristic profile, slashing into the soft belly of the Anacreontic ode with the eagle’s talon. But other than that the America version is still pure mens’ club fun—rough sloppy, and loud.
It is precisely the careening nature of the melody that is meant to encourage swipes at the tune, a singing style akin to swinging a pewter tankard drunkenly through the smoky men’s club air. Aguilera’s deviations were less imprecise and tipsy; she sounded like her drug of choice was rather more a stimulant than a blunting claret. Roseanne Barr’s infamous off-key rendition of 1990 between the games of a San Diego Padres’ doubleheader—a performance that defenders of the national anthem have now exhumed and paired with Aguilera’s as kindred desecrations — good-naturedly captured the essence of the song and two centuries of American flailing at it.
What Aguilera’s performance shows is that the ancient men’s drinking song is at last ready to be put out to pasture somewhere beyond the endless parking lots of Cowboy Stadium. As I’ve argued in this column before, the great anthem by Hanns Eisler is currently looking for a home after the demise of the German Democratic Republic.) A focused tune that marches mostly by step rather than intoxicated lurch is much more likely to keep singers from going off into unrepentant extravaganzas of ornamentation. But even with the end of the Cold War the ideological baggage of the GDR’s Out of the Ruins will sadly prevent it from displacing the Ancreontic Song as our national melody. Yes, one could go back to the preferred anthems of the 19th-century “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” or “God Bless America” (also sung to a British tune, of course), but what about turning to the present rather than the past?
Aguilera’s watershed reading of the anthem comes at a moment of American unrest, even revolutionary ferment in the United States in the form of the Tea Party. Perhaps one of the many Tea Party anthems will be called on to replace the Star-Spangled Banner, after Aguilera’s surgical strike whose conclusion was appropriately timed with the Blue Angels flyover, an ad for the US military whose half-a-million dollar pricetag was picked up by the taxpayer.
Country Singer Ray Stevens, whose offensive Orientalist song “Ahab the Arab” was number one on the pop-rock charts in the early 1960s and whose “Caribou Barbie” serves nicely as the burial hymn for Sarah Palin’s political corpse, claims the most popular Tea Party Anthem, with his YouTube video, “We the People” which has gotten upwards of four million hits.
Stevens’ lyrics trip off the tongue, unfettered by the stilted diction of our current anthem:
It’s gonna be a big heartbreaker,
Grandma needs a new pacemaker,
And the doctor says, “I realize she’s ill,
But there’s talk of legislation, on all our medication,
and maybe all we can do is put her on a pain pill.”
Whoa, me! Hey, Congress!
You vote Obamacare,
We’re gonna vote you outtathere!
Admittedly the text is tethered to the political moment and technology that will soon be dated if the anthem—and nation—were to live on far into the future. But Francis Scott Key’s poem is also historically located, and full of antiquated language and diction. The lines from Key’s third verse — “No refuge could save the hireling and slave / From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave” — are apparently a reference to the American black slaves serving in the front ranks of the invading British force in the War of 1812. [Alexander Cockburn notes: Admiral Sir George Cockburn, overall commander of the British forces, promised them liberty if they joined up and many slaves expressed a keen desire to be deployed in “a station facing their former masters.”]
As a melody Stevens’ composition is neither more nor less silly than the Anacreontic Ode, just a lot more singable, and certainly virulently and unmistakably American, in contrast to the English men’s club tune it would supplant.
Or there’s the more urban approach of black conservative entertainer Lloyd Marcus’ Tea Party Anthem, which attacks Obama’s stimulus package, makes a hilariously random swipe at the French (an inversion of the Revolutionary period’s many musical paeans to their allies in the fight against the British), and issues praise of the Constitution, while repeatedly reminding us that “Freedom ain’t Free.”
Marcus’ jamboree of gibberish would at least have the hands off the patriotic hearts and clapping to the beat, and would encourage a mighty shaking of the jingoistic booty politic.
Even if a musical plebiscite were to lead to the overthrow of the laughable Anacreontic Song, its strict constructionist defenders are blind to the truth that in the land of the musically free and brave no tune, not even the lockstep patter of Ray Stevens’ political broadside, is safe from the rebellious impulses of the musical imagination.
David Yearsley teaches at Cornell University. He is author of “Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint.” His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London,” has just been released by Musica Omnia . He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.