Don’t blame Francis Scott Key
‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ may be America’s national anthem, but the tune has been a perilous fight for many a singer taking on its octave-and-a-half (give or a take a fifth) range. Who could forget Michael Bolton, who was caught with the lyrics scribbled on his hand in a desperate attempt to remember the words? The past year has seen more than its fair share of anthem assaults; the latest mixed reviews came in for Steven Tyler, who gave the song a glam-rock gloss at the Patriots-Ravens NFL playoff game.
As a sophomore “American Idol” judge, Tyler has been on the offensive end of doling out singing advice. (It might be worth noting that two “Idol” protégés — winner Scott McCreery and runner-up Lauren Alaina — have mangled the anthem.) Tyler’s shredded rasp had Yahoo! Sports’ Puck Daddy blog comparing his voice to that of an “alley cat with strep throat after a Novocain injection.” Then again, YouTube “likes” have been running ahead at a roughly 2:1 ratio. “This was a Steven Tyler WIN!!!” extolled one comment.
Why is the anthem so hard to sing?
Screwing up the anthem has been as old a tradition as the anthem itself. The New York Times suggested tinkering with the tune — actually an old English tavern ditty called “The Anacreontic Song” — in the early 1900s. “The American people…stand mute, or they collapse in the middle of the first stanza.”
One remedy, by a female musical correspondent who “modestly” wanted to remain anonymous, suggested “compressing the air at both ends, to prevent it from descending to the tonic and from ascending to the higher fifth, thereby keeping it within the compass of an octave plus a semi-tone. A characteristic trait of the original melody is based on the intervals of the common chord or triad.”
Get it? Or, as the New York Times explained 35 years later, you jump 10 notes from a low B flat “with no preparation whatsoever” at that crucial “rockets’ red glare” line, and then crawl up another two notes. No wonder a committee in 1942 had to come up with “The Code for the National Anthem of the United States of America.”
The patriotic duty may be to sing along, but this is the stuff that can sideline political careers. A candidate always has to worry about an errant microphone. In Hillary Clinton’s case back in 2008, some off-tune warbling earned her a few seconds of infamy.
OK, this one we might be able to blame on Francis Scott Key. If it’s not the tune that brings them down, the lyrics trip them up. Christina Aguilera has been honing her “Star-Spangled” rendition since she was 7 years old, singing often for the Pittsburgh Penguins. But when her Super Bowl XLV moment came, she choked up and had to apologize for crooning about the twilight’s last gleaming instead of those broad stripes and bright stars so gallantly streaming.
Aguilera later explained, “I got so caught up in the moment of the song, that I lost my place.” Don’t worry, Christina, there’s proof you knew the words once. Here’s a young Aguilera, beginning at the 0:53 mark.
Aguilera started off a 2011 anthem downslide that continued with Cyndi Lauper, whose reverent take at the U.S. Open tennis tournament hit the “O’er the ramparts we watched,” then went off a cliff into what sounds like “the frag was still streaming.”
Cheaters never win
Time magazine, in a merciless hit list of “Top 10 Worst National-Anthem Renditions” flayed Michael Bolton for writing the lyrics on his hands for his 2003 Fenway Park performance. Tell us, how was he supposed to carry on, when all those lyrics are so long?
Comedian Roseanne Barr usually tops my-ears-are-bleeding-revoke-her-citizenship lists. As offensive as her 1990 San Diego Padres performance was (not to mention the crotch-grab), did anybody really expect Barr to sing?
Then again, it took some cajones for Barr to claim her shot at redemption, 20 years later, on her Lifetime show, “Roseanne’s Nuts.” “Singing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ the first time ruined everything. I really wanted to just turn the car around and not to do it,” Barr says on the show. “But when I saw my grandkids, I did want them to know no matter if you made a bad mistake, nobody can stop you from trying to correct it.”
How it’s done
For every booed version, there’s a crowd pleaser. The favorite from the 2011 World Series was Zooey Deschanel’s rendition.
The kiddie round-up
Maybe the secret is to find someone who doesn’t know about all the baggage that comes with the anthem — and how your missteps live forever online. This was certainly the case for two young ladies: 8-year-old Elizabeth Hughes, who inspired a crowd sing-along, and 10-year-old Lily Anderson, diagnosed with stage 4 neuroblastoma. Stand up and salute.