Time to Stop National Anthem Abuse

There can’t be many of us around who have heard more renditions of the national anthem than our own Billy Reed. His thoughts:

by Billy Reed

I was going to save this column for one of the patriotic holidays but I can’t wait. It’s time we started a national movement against national-anthem abuse. To put it mildly, I’m sick and tired of hear Francis Scott Key’s song mangled before sporting events.

Steven Tyler

I consider myself to be something of an expert on national-anthem singing. I was born in 1943, at roughly the time the national anthem was becoming a fixture before major-league baseball games.

After the war, the troops came home but the anthem remained on active duty. In fact, it spread to other sports. By 1959, the year I began writing about games for a living, the anthem was as much a part of sporting events as popcorn and point spreads.

I have no idea how many times I’ve heard the anthem sung at some sporting venue or another. The times it touches me most is when it’s played for an American athlete who has just won a gold medal at the Olympic games. I cry sometimes.

Over the years I’ve heard the anthem done by professionals and amateurs, men and women, boys and girls, blacks and whites, sober people and drunks. I’ve seen celebrities forget the words. I’ve seen it done with a full orchestra in the background and I’ve seen it done a capella, always a dangerous proposition.

Music people have told me the anthem is very difficult to sing, what with octave changes and stuff like that. I guess that what makes it especially easy to screw up. And, boy, is it ever screwed up. I doubt there’s any song in world history, including “Feelings” and “Free Bird,” that has been screwed up more royally, and in more different ways, than “The Star Spangled Banner.”

I will make three points that should be must reading for anybody asked to sing the national anthem in public:

1.    It’s an anthem and should be sung briskly. I’ve put the clock on many national anthem renderings and anything much longer than a minute and change is way too long.

2.    One-syllable words should not be turned into two-syllable syllable words, two-syllable words should not be turned into three-syllable words and so forth. It makes the singer look like an idiot and it makes the audience – at least the English majors in it – squirm uncomfortably. The word is “flag,” not “fly-yag.”

3.    No singer’s ego, style, personality, individuality, or marketability should ever distract for the song itself. Memo to singers: It’s not about you, stupid. It’s about the United States of America.

For an excellent example of how the anthem should be sung, I refer you to the way Timothy Nobles does it before Indiana University basketball games. A professional opera singer who has toured the world for more than four decades, Nobles uses his baritone to do such a robust version of the anthem that it’s easily the best part of the pre-game ceremonies – far better, by the way, than all these elaborate, NBA-style introductions that feature music, spotlights, and fireworks. That only increases the players’ sense of self-importance, which is the last thing most of them need.

But I digress.

Of all the sorry renditions I’ve seen in recent months, the absolute worst was by Steven Tyler, Aerosmith front man and “American Idol” judge, before the AFC Championship game last month. He did not sing the anthem as much as he mugged it. He rasped, yowled, and screamed, but he did not sing.

When the TV cameras flashed away from Tyler to the players lined up on the sideline, many wore puzzled expressions. A couple looked as if they thought somebody was playing a joke on them. Naturally, when Tyler was asked about it, he said he didn’t understand what all the fuss was about.

“I don’t know,” he said, accurately, “As I said before, I put emphasis on, ‘In the land of the free’ and I went up, Oddly enough I hit the note so I don’t know what they are talking about. I emphasized ‘free’ which was for freedom. It was well thought out prior to. I wasn’t messing with American tradition.”

I’ll agree that it wasn’t any more horrible than the rap or hip-hop that’s played loudly on the P.A. system before Kentucky and Louisville games. You can’t understand the lyrics, which is probably a good thing because many parents would be shocked if they knew what the, ah, “artists” were chanting.

Simply put, rap and/or hip-hop is the most dreadful musical genre in the history of mankind. It’s really not music because, like a horrid performance in gymnastics, it can’t be scored. Whatever else it is, it’s not music. Personally, I’d rather be water-boarded than have to spent 15 minutes locked in a room with hip-hop blaring.
But I digress again.

When done a capella by pop artists of any genre, it can quickly separate those who can really sing, those who have a truly fine voice, from those who need a lot of background noise to cover their limitations. By and large, country singers are the worst, because they usually insist on drawing the thing out way too long and turned one-syllable words into multi-syllabic atrocities.

In some memorable cases, the singing of the anthem has helped define careers. For example, Whitney Houston’s rendition before Super Bowl XXV in 1991 has been a top-20 single not once but twice: first in 1991 during the Gulf War and again in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks.

On the flip side, Christina Aguilera became a national punch line after she botched it at a major sporting event. And the ever-lovely and charming Roseanne Barr managed to offend almost everyone by the way she spit and grabbed her crotch while doing the anthem before a 1990 World Series game.

The anthem singers aren’t the only ones who disgrace themselves during the song. Many fans treat it as some kind of necessary evil. They come reluctantly to their feet, slouch instead of stand at attention, and talk or text instead of singing along or at least remaining silent.

Apologists for this kind of behavior say the anthem should no longer be played before every game because familiarity can breed contempt. They argue that it should be saved for special events, such as the Olympics or other international competitions. Less usage, they say, would earn the anthem greater respect.

They may have a point worth discussing. However, as long as we do honor America by playing the national anthem before games, we have an obligation to use proper anthem etiquette. Everyone should stand at attention, right hand over the heart. Hats always should be removed, cell phones put away, and talking not permitted.

But then there’s the case of Goshen College in Indiana, a Mennonite school that competes in the NAIA. The powers-that-be at Goshen recently decided that the national anthem would not be played or sung before athletic competition.

The reason wasn’t that they, like me, had gotten sick of anthem abuse. It was what they determined to be a philosophical clash with the school’s mission. which the school sums up in the slogan “Healing the world, peace by peace.” Goshen replaced “The Star-Spangled Banner” with  “America the Beautiful,” which is not an anthem and was not inspired by a bloody battle.

I don’t mind the anthem being part of the pre-game show as long as it is sung in a proper, meaningful, and respectful fashion. It gives us a moment to pause and remember the young people overseas who would give anything to be home, playing in a game, instead of serving their nation in harm’s way. It also gives us a moment to thank all those who have served their country since Key wrote his song in 1812.

I have never booed a national-anthem abuser because that could be construed as being disrespectful and unpatriotic. But, so help me, the next time I hear a semi-talented singer or group try to put their spin on the song – always a disaster – I will not take responsibility for my actions. That might be the one that finally puts me over the edge.

Anthem abusers should consider themselves warned.