Wednesday, February 9, 2011

My Star Spangled Banner

There’s enough national anthem to go around.

I learned something surprising yesterday. I had no idea, but apparently the national anthem is to be sung in a certain style. I’m still a little vague as to what that style is, but I do know this much: it is reverent, it does not involve any “ghetto yodeling” (whatever that is) and anything that is not in that style is an affront to the nation.

Of course, this knowledge would never have come to me if it weren’t for Christina Aguilera’s unfortunate lyrical snafu when performing “The Star Spangled Banner” for Super Bowl XLV. But every cloud has a silver lining, because I learned that she only got the words wrong from singing an improper version of the song. Well, that and because she’s a talentless, egotistical hack who didn’t bother to practice and hates America anyway. Or something like that.

I am glad to have received this information because, like Jimi Hendrix carelessly strumming his guitar, I’ve been haphazardly singing “The Star Spangled Banner” in any style that suits me for years. Think of the faux pas that may have been! It really got me thinking about my own, personal experience with our nation’s song.

When I was a college junior, I became a member of the Dana College Chorale. It was an honor and an experience I would not trade. One song we kept neat and polished in our repertoire at all times was the director’s own arrangement of “The Star Spangled Banner,” always ready at a moment’s notice. I don’t recall if his was an “approved” arrangement, being ignorant of the stipulation at the time, but I suspect it was not, being a rather soulful rendition.

We performed the piece regularly, always aiming for perfection, but also for feeling. That was very important to our ensemble. (A good dose of Moses Hogan will do that to you. He was a favorite composer of the ensemble.) I expect we performed perfectly exactly zero times, not because we were bad—we were quite good actually—but because that is how music is: unforgiving. Either it is perfect, or it is not.

It is easy for me to pinpoint my single, most memorable performance of “The Star Spangled Banner” with the ensemble. It was at the annual 4th of July celebration held in Denmark’s, Rebild National Park, the largest 4th of July celebration outside of the U.S. The Chorale had performed every fourth year stretching well back before I was inducted into the ensemble. Yes, the school had Danish ties, but we would not have been invited if we were not worth hearing, much less given the privilege of singing both American and Danish national anthems. We took our places on a stage once trod by Ronald Reagan and George Bush attending the same event.

I can sum up the experience in a single word: hard. You sing your nation's song on her birthday, on foreign soil to an audience beaming at the mere idea of America, welling inside with that strange blend of humility and pride that is peculiar to patriotism and God's embrace, with a heart too big and too high to swallow down and eyes that are so full the world is a Monet painting, and then you tell me that it is easy. No, it was hard. And, I was proud, damned proud, proud to be seen and heard, because I was doing a thing worth being proud of. And there is nothing wrong with that.

Singing a song with a heart so full is the nearest thing to impossible I can remember doing. Remember, mind you; this is no reverie.

So now I’ll go back to Christina Aguilera. I imagine what I experienced was nothing compared to what she was up against. When singing the national anthem, you want to do your best. But when the full meaning of the song hits you, mid-verse, in a time and a place already too awesome to anticipate, there’s no preparation for that. I got through my rendition okay, I think I missed a couple notes, but I had a couple dozen friends to prop me up. And we all sang with feeling. Christina was swaying in the emotional winds alone.

I’ve encountered a number of people criticizing the performance, and certainly any performance is open to criticism, stating that they would rather have the national anthem sung right rather than with emotion. That’s fine, if that’s what they want. But just because that’s not what they got with their Super Bowl does not make it a national disgrace. But while they are swooned by their tepid, mechanical, but technically precise anthem, I will gladly take my country’s song with a heaping dose of heart and soul, because those ingredients have a sweetness that will overpower any sour note.

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