Monday, July 4, 2011

Land of the Parody

I'd like to celebrate the Fourth of July by noting that our national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner," is tired, bloated, and way too difficult to sing. That extra 2-3 minutes that delays the start of baseball games could easily be a minute or less. Personally, I don't get it. Yet I can also see how Francis Scott Key's hymn to an obscure battle in an equally obscure war1 is strangely in sync with America's national character.

Nothing but absolute and unattainable perfection makes an American free from ridicule, so the anthem's notoriously challenging tune (and lyrics) are a gift from the
schadenfreude gods. And its length is one of the more brusque reminders of our death grip on the idea of American exceptionalism. Don't you love those awkward moments at the Olympics when an American wins the gold and the other medalists have to stand there annoyed as "Banner" goes on for a virtual eternity? To paraphrase Mariah Carey, it says "We the press conference, you a conversation."

I'm thinking it's time for a change. "Banner" was adopted by the (surprise!) military in the late 19th century. It wasn't long before it became de riguer at sporting events and was eventually declared the national anthem by an act of Congress in 1931. But I've always had a soft spot for the de facto anthem before our current official one: "My Country, Tis of Thee." It's catchy, evocative, and - most importantly - brief. Even Aretha Franklin needs to ham her way through
three of its verses to match the average length of "Banner."

I don't know exactly why I prefer it to other worthy choices.2 I think it dovetailed nicely with my elementary school obsessions with patriotic songs and "Weird Al" Yankovic. But I didn't grasp the song's connection to our nation's storied gifts of parody and legerdemain3 right away - it was a few years later when I realized that "My Country" cribs the tune from "God Save the King/Queen."

Maybe antagonizing a foreign country with a diss track is no longer appropriate for a mature nation, but at least the average person can understand its syntax, let alone sing the notes (that Wembley clip always gives me chills; nobody in that crowd is holding back for fear of bungling the tune). The only thing I don't like is that anachronistic bit about the pilgrims' pride. Good thing there are plenty of verses to choose from already, as well as a tradition of tacking on additional lyrics.

Just please choose one verse, America, and keep it brief. We're going to need all the time we can get to practice our Mandarin.

Happy Fourth!

1 It should be said that the Battle of Baltimore and the bombing of Fort McHenry in 1814 is unfairly forgotten. Repulsing a British invasion of the Chesapeake, it was a major turning point in the War of 1812 and led directly to the Brits' ill-fated invasion of New Orleans, perhaps more famous now because it inspired a much better war song. Sometimes it's all about PR.

2 There's definitely a case to be made for a recording of Ray Charles' "America the Beautiful" as a permanent anthem.

3 Spinning a national insult into a badge of honor, like "Yankee Doodle" or American Idol.

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