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Gene Weingarten: Christina Aguilera isn't the only one who botched the national anthem

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!

(crash of cymbals)

On rocks and dirt we stand!

(Cannons, trumpets, fluegelhorns)

And we eat food!

Countries without particularly majestic or recognizable natural resources must go with what they have, which creates actual verses such as this, from the Cameroon anthem:

"From Shari, from where the Mungo meanders/From along the banks of lowly Boumba Stream,/Muster thy sons in union close around thee,/Mighty as the Buea Mountain be their team."

Some more ancient anthems suffer a bit from their quaintness. Based on an old legend that does not appear to be well buttressed by science or anecdotal evidence, the Japanese anthem is based almost entirely on the contention that, given enough time, pebbles grow into boulders.

Perhaps the most famous and stirring anthem is France's "Marseillaise," which we Americans generally hear in French, which is fortunate because French sounds so elegant, poetic and high-minded. The song, in fact, warns its citizens that savage enemies are arriving "to cut the throats of your sons and consorts," regrettably requiring that these rude and violent foreigners be massacred in such a way that French farmland is irrigated by their blood - which, being non-French, is "impure."

So, for the moment, I'll stick with our stupid ramparts. And by "for the moment," I mean "until next week," when, in this here space, as a service for generations to come, I'll rewrite our anthem.

E-mail Gene at weingarten@washpost.com.

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