What so proudly we failed

Sunday, March 6, 2011

I 've lately been listening to dozens of foreign national anthems to try to understand why ours is so bad. I now know ours could be a lot worse.

I began this hideous chore after watching the Super Bowl, where Christina Aguilera performed an electrifying, throaty, sultry, unforgettable butchery of the lyrics of "The Star-Spangled Banner." After eliminating the ramparts entirely, she sang - and I quote verbatim - "… what so proudly we watched at the twilight's last reaming …"

Because our anthem is famously difficult, many people gave Christina a pass. I do not. If you pay someone, say, $250,000 to build a house, it is reasonable to expect that the toilets will not empty into the dining room. If you pay someone, say, $250,000 to sing 81 words, it is likewise reasonable to expect her to assemble them in reasonably good order.

Still, even when sung correctly, our anthem is a mess: 15 dangling clauses that seem more or less mix-and-match interchangeable (Oh, say! can you see/through the perilous fight/o'er the land of the free/by the dawn's early light … ), all of it amounting to a single, convoluted question that is then … not answered. The printed lyrics actually end in a question mark.

Does the flag still wave? As yet undetermined! The answer doesn't arrive until the second stanza, which no one knows because it is mostly sung in creepy, hyper-patriotic gatherings of, say, ladies who are direct descendants of Cotton Mather, or during secret Masonic initiation rites involving men wearing aprons.

(FYI: Yes, it still waves.)

The tune and the lyrics are so out of sync that the singer is forced to comically elasticize words: "Oh, say! does tha-hat star-spangled ba-ner-er ye-het way-hayve ...

As most schoolchildren know, this song was written by Francis Scott Key, whose name perseveres mostly on the uniforms of the Frederick Keys, a minor league baseball team in Maryland whose fans, during the seventh-inning stretch, in a timeless ritual of respect for American history, in unison jingle their car keys.

Anyway, as I said, I have been listening to other nations' anthems to the point where I like ours more, by comparison.

One thing you notice is that the smaller and crappier a country is, the more soaring and grandiloquent is the music of its anthem, even where the lyrics don't say a lot because the country doesn't have much to brag about inasmuch as it has a turnip-based economy. These anthems all tend to sound like this:

Hail Zpjockland!

Noble and good!

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