Tuesday, February 8, 2011

February 8: Problem Is Anthem, Not Aguilera

By Sylvia Gurinsky

Christina Aguilera was not the first singer, nor will she be the last, to struggle publicly with "The Star Spangled Banner." She doesn't deserve the ridicule she's getting.

Rather, Aguilera's issues with the anthem at the Super Bowl reflect yet again that, while "The Star Spangled Banner" isn't going anywhere, it's a flawed national anthem.

Attorney Francis Scott Key wrote it as part of a larger poem about the Battle of Fort McHenry in Baltimore during the War of 1812, so the words don't cover the bigger themes of what it means to be an American. The tune is from a British drinking song and the words are about seeing the American flag in the middle of a war.

For more than a century, the Army and Navy adopted it as a national anthem. It became the official national anthem during World War I, declared by President Woodrow Wilson through an executive order, and then was signed into law by President Herbert Hoover in 1931.

It sounds best either when it's performed by a military band or classical orchestra, or when it's sung by a classically trained singer. One of the critiques of Aguilera's version came from a writer who indicated that pop singers get in trouble when they try to perform a pop-style version of "The Star Spangled Banner."

Alternatives have been discussed, but there are problems. "America," better known as "My Country 'Tis of Thee," has the same tune as the British national anthem. "America the Beautiful" is seen as too pastoral.

But there is a song that is more personal for Americans, already an unofficial national anthem during World War II and after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 - Irving Berlin's "God Bless America."

It is a quintessentially American anthem - written by a Russian immigrant who became an American citizen, first performed during World War I - it makes reference to the "storm clouds...far across the sea" - and when the preamble is sung, refers to freedom. If atheists have a problem with the title, well, it's no different from the reference in "O Canada."

Most Americans know the words. And it's a difficult song for a pop singer to mess up; Berlin himself sang it with Boy and Girl Scouts, who receive proceeds from it, on "The Ed Sullivan Show" during his 80th birthday in 1968.

It's certainly a better representation of what we want our country to be than "bombs bursting in air."

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