Thursday, July 01, 2010

The National Anthem... and this goes for you too, Canada

A recent email I received from reader Corrine:

I have a request.

I think my favorite post of yours is The National Anthem. In fact, I dug it out last night to show a friend after a discussion on our Canadian Anthem last night. Though written for the US anthem, the sentiments could easily apply here as well.

In honor of Canada Day, July 1st, (and, of course, the US celebrations July 4th) could you please repost The National Anthem on July 1st?I spend every night at Dodger Stadium hosting Dodger Talk on KABC radio. That means that every night I’m treated to a different version of the National Anthem. I think I speak for the hundreds of millions of Americans who attend sporting events each year when I say to the performers…

The National Anthem is not a five-minute blues number.

It is not a Mariah Carey overwrought teen power ballad complete with runs and riffs and “yeahs” inserted in the middle. Whitney did it. You will never top it. Don’t try.

The National Anthem is not a song that needs a “hook”. Or your own “personal signature”.

It is not a sultry torch song. Do not use it to impress the chicks. The Star Spangled Banner is not catnip for horny women.

It is not opera. If you need to wear a Viking helmet to get in the mood, rethink.

Nor is it the Grand Ole Opry. Does Yankee Stadium look like a barn dance to you?

Yo! The National Anthem is also not a hip-hop jam. Do not sample “Happy Together” in the middle of it. Do not shout out “Clap your hands, y’all!” when you’re near the end.

It is not meant to be whistled, beat boxed, played on spoons, washboards, ukuleles, kazoos, or sung in Klingon.

The Rat Pack is dead. So should be all versions of the Star Spangled Banner that swing. Francis Scott Key did not envision finger popping and nowhere is the word “kookoo” in the lyrics.

And speaking of the lyrics – LEARN THEM. It’s “perilous fight” not “perilous night”, not “perilous flight”, not “perilous twilights bursting in air”.

The song has an actual melody. Just come close to it…even occasionally. That’s all I ask.

And finally, stop Stop STOP STOP trying to hold the last few notes forever. You’re not stirring. You’re a car alarm that won’t turn off.

The National Anthem is arguably one of the hardest songs to perform. But done well it’s also one of the most powerful. Just sing the friggin’ song.

And let us get on to “play ball!”.


Jon J said...

Salute, Mr. Levine.

Thank you.

Sebastian said...

I recently found out that the national anthem was written on the HMS Minden - named after a town roughly 20 miles from here.

I love Wikipedia :-)

Alan said...

I am not the most patriotic person in the world, but I still get mad when people mess up the anthem.

Well written.

Corinne said...

Thanks so much Ken!!!

Here's a recent article that had much the same sentiments from the artist's POV. It is no where near as eloquently put as yours, however.

Happy Canada Day!

Mary Stella said...

Great post, Ken.

And for all you players out there:

Take off your hat.

Don't chat to your buddy standing next to you.

Don't hawk up your chewing tobacco and spit during the song.

No blowing bubbles.

Save the scratching and crotch adjustments for your next at-bat.

This is not the time to elbow your friend so he can check out the woman in the first row behind the other team's dugout -- even if she's a 38D in a size teeny halter top.

Ed Blonski said...

May I add that it is a song that is meant to be sung TOGETHER AS A GROUP. They put the words up on the screen for a reason people.

Even if you can't carry a tune in a bucket, you can sing your nation's anthem (for you USAmericans).

As Ken said, it isn't a song that needs to be "performed" - it is simply to be sung.

We stand. Men take off their hats. Some cover their hearts (as in a pledge).

Men and women bled and died so we could sing this song in a free country!

benson said...

Enough said.

BigTed said...

Not only will no one ever beat Whitney Houston's over-the-top version, but, sad to say, these days she couldn't sing it herself.

Brian Wolman said...

I'll never forget Marvin Gaye's soulful, majestic rendition of the national anthem at the NBA All-Star Game back in the early 80's.
So great it was the very first video VH1 showed when it launched.

Matt said...

Whenever someone is introduced as such: "...And here to sing our National Anthem, ___(number)___ time Grammy Winner ...." I know we're in for a tough 7 minutes.


Just sing the damn thing and be done with it. Better yet, we should have a standard recording, military style, of the anthem that teams all the way from PAL Football to MLB, NFL, NHL and NBA should be required .. REQUIRED .. to use. The National Anthem is not your American Idol audition!

bevo said...

As a former collegiate athletics administrator, I had to stand through a lot of renditions of the anthem. It is annoying as hell.

If playing the anthem before an event is such a great idea, then how come we do not perform the anthem more frequently? Before the start of the business day, we could all stand at our desks while the anthem is played. How about the start of every meeting?

What about the start of school? A meal? Class?

If you are going to insist on playing the anthem before sporting events is some sort of display of patriotism, then you should know how the custom came to be. Here are three hints: (1) WWI, (2) opportunistic baseball owners, and (3) lip service to patriotism.

A senior colleague asked why I liked being involved in soccer so much. I said, they don't play the anthem. The next game, everyone stood while the anthem crackled over the PA system. The administrator looked at me and said fuck you. I smiled.

For the following game, I had the PA kid play the anthem of every player listed on both rosters. 19 minutes later, the match started. I walked by the the administrator and said, no fuck you.

As you can guess, I was not long for the place.

wv: cultiker - a member of a cult like Scientology or Mormanism

tb said...

Oooh, say can you....I'm askin', can you...

Bleeding Gums Murphy

iain said...

Ken, care to share any details of your worst anthem experience?

Mine was at a Cavaliers game that featured the "artist" who appeared in the Marky Mark & The Fun Bunch "Good Vibrations" video, in which the actual vocal was done by 1 of the Weathergirls. The reasons for this became immediately & horrifically clear from the her voice cracking "Ohhhh" to the last "brrrrrave" squeal.

One of the best & most straightforward renditions came before an Indians game by none other than Pia Zadora.

Vermonter17032 said...

Amen, Brother Lavine!

Splat said...

I don't get it. Americans play the national anthem before every baseball game?

RolloSuplex said...

I agree with a commenter above. Marvin Gaye did the ONLY acceptable non-traditional arrangement. His version could make me cry. Everyone else needs to sing is straight. Zero variations!

Anonymous said...

I agree with the sentiment that the anthem should be played/sung in a straightforward way, with one exception. There is an instrumental jazz version by Bela Fleck that is steller. His band was in the studio the night the first Gulf war started, and they ended up recording the anthem. It's amazing. But even though I love it, I don't want to hear it at the ballpark!

And what I REALLY hate is the way Chicago sports fans scream during the anthem. It's a tradition, but it's rude and disrespectful, both to the anthem and to the singer. Makes me fume every time I go to a ballgame. I know many native Chicagoans love this tradition, but I can't stand it. I'm bringing my six-year-old nephew to his first Cubs game in a few weeks, and I'm dreading having to explain this idiotic tradition to him.

Mandy Muse said...

I've always loved Robert Heinlein's remark that "the Founding Fathers knew what they were doing when they pitched the word "free" so high no-one can reach it.

girlsaregeeks said...

Nicely written. I like the Star Spangled Banner quite a lot when done well. Only problem I have is I sang harmony on it in high school, so sometimes I slip a third down.

Girls Are Geeks

Ron Rettig said...

Thank you Ken. I think too many talented, and even well intentioned, performers think of the National Anthem as a cover song and not as a solemn expression of patriotic and national identity.

JKChicago said...

Thank you for providing such a valuable public service. I'm a choir teacher, and one of my goals in life is to produce children who know how to sing our national anthem. Bad/overwrought anthem performances are one of my biggest pet peeves.

Considering how good the Canadian anthem is, it's depressing to hear that people up there mess it up too.

Cam said...

My best experience was at a Chicago Fire (soccer) game. The girl was doing just fine...until they showed her on the jumbo-tron. She froze. The entire stadium picked up where she left off and sang (no screaming, Anon) the rest of the song.

At the Fire games they also let off fireworks during "rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air"...I love it.

Omnibus Driver said...

Amen and Amen.

Buttermilk Sky said...

"Not only will no one ever beat Whitney Houston's over-the-top version, but, sad to say, these days she couldn't sing it herself."

Time passes, Big Ted. In the last years of his life, Robert Merrill was lip-synching to his own recording at Yankee Stadium.

And much as I agree in principle, Ken, I have a fond recollection of Jimi Hendrix's instrumental version at Woodstock. But in general when I hear, "And now, to honor America..." I reach for the mute button.

daniel from cherry hill said...

As a former Baltimorean it troubles me, but...

Our anthem should be G-d bless America.

sephim said...

How did you feel about Leslie Nielsen's rendition in Naked Gun 2 1/2?

Charles H. Bryan said...

Trivia: It was written to the tune of an old English drinking song. Imagine a flagon of ale in your hand and you sing it better (and a little more quickly).

I would never replace it. The verse we usually sing ends with a question -- not just as to whether the flag still waves, but does it still represent what we think it should. No other nominee does that.

Ed Blonski said...

The Chicago Blackhawks tradition is mostly that - a Blackhawks tradition. In general, fans don't scream at the Cubs, Bulls, Sox, Bears, or any other game where the Anthem is used.

By the way, it is not considered disrespectful in Chicago. The fans are cheering their country.

You see, it isn't about the performer, it's about what the song is sung for - our country.

Anonymous said...

Well said, Mr. Levine. Thank you.

Trivia: It was written to the tune of an old English drinking song. Imagine a flagon of ale in your hand and you sing it better (and a little more quickly).

The explanation I heard was that if you could get through the song okay, you were allowed to keep drinking. Fail the song and you were cut off.

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

It was written as a poem, not a song. The music was added later. I hear it every day when I leave work. I work on an Air Force base and right around the time I quit for the day the retreat ceremony sounds. First there's the retreat bugle call, then the national anthem. If I'm driving I have to stop and wait for the song to end.
I agree with you, Ken, 100%. Sing it straight, don't make it a vehicle for some crappy song stylist. And cut Roseanne's throat for what she did to it.

WV: protoot. A professional fart.

Ref said...

Thanks, Ken. I'm a vocalist and a hard-core leftist, but I've sung it before games and my intro is always "Please stand and JOIN me in singing OUR national anthem."

To Bevo, I say I understand your annoyance at what may be overuse, but the meaning to me is that, at large events with a diverse crowd, it should be something we all do TOGETHER, as Americans, to celebrate what we can accomplish when we're not focusing on our differences.

To Dan From Cherry hill, we are NOT a Christian or religious-based nation. It is not appropriate for our anthem to invoke a spiritual belief.

And to all you torch singers out there, it's PEH-RIH-LUS, not PEH-ROO-LISS!

WV VERDA: It's VERDA love of your country.

daniel in cherry hill said...

America the beautiful

Joey H said...

Another vote for "America the Beautiful"

Jack Chalmers said...

Absolutely correct! I suggest dumping the "professional" singers, and let the kids, who announce, "It's time for Dodger baseball", also sing the National Anthem. It's not about the quality of the voice, it is about having respect. I'll bet the crowd would then be able to sing along, something not possible with the be-bop renditions.

parnell said...

I prefer the original national anthem as recalled by the 2000-Year-Old Man: "All the other caves go to hell except cave 86."

MattA said...

Anonymous, it will be easier to explain why Chicagoans scream during the anthem than why they continue to pay money to watch the Cubs play.

Ref said...

Sorry, guys, I'm still voting for The Star-Spangled Banner. I like America The Beautiful a lot, but we need to get a verse that doesn't involve a God reference.

I never understood the resurgence of God Bless America after 9/11. What's the point of getting into a God fight with a bunch of crazed fundamentalists?

Foaming Solvent said...

Thank you for this post. I agree.

At this year's Indianapolis 500, Jewel performed the Star-Spangled Banner, and it was the best such performance I have heard in a long time. Because she just sang the song, and did it beautifully.

Doug E said...

In the past, was not the national anthem part of the radio broadcast of MLB games? I seem to remember hearing the anthem on the radio before baseball games, back in the 70s and 80s. I know that KABC Radio Los Angeles DOES NOT broadcast the anthem before Dodger games, but KABC will broadcast some of the "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" song in the 7th inning.

The national anthem is sort of the official START of baseball games.
I think it is more important than a few more commercials before the game.

Doug E