Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Oh, Say…

A number of my spheres of existence (band types, music students, Americans) were abuzz after Sunday night’s Super Bowl game. Not about the football, since if the Patriots weren’t involved in the game, it was of minimal interest hereabouts. Not about the halftime show, since by and large the halftime shows of major bowl games and Super Bowls (and Pro Bowls and just about any other football contest deemed important enough to make it onto the major networks) usually are anywhere between ho-hum and utterly appalling, give or take a wardrobe malfunction.

Nope. This year it was “did you hear the Anthem?”

I didn’t. I made it to the TV in time for the third play of the game. So I had to get the news secondhand – Facebook exploded briefly, and some of my colleagues at school opined loudly the next morning. Apparently there’s this pop singer called Christina Aguilera, and she screwed up somehow?

Now. I am frankly willing to cut someone a break if they’re actually trying to Do It Live!!, rather than lip-synching. I have it on good authority that if you sing into a microphone at home plate, you will hear your voice, singing those words, come booming from the centerfield loudspeakers an alarming period of time later.

There were questions about whether Ms. Aguilera had proper command of the words. I am also willing to cut people a break in this regard: it’s amazing what heretofore-ingrained words, thoughts, concepts etc. will flee your brain in moments like this. Even the most experienced pop stars may be forgiven for realizing, “holy crap, I’m singing the National Anthem in front of approximately half the world. And aliens will pick up this broadcast centuries from now on the other side of the galaxy. Ulp.”

I am not, however, prone to forgiving what has become commonplace over the last few decades (can’t just blame it on the pop singer kids now), namely, the singing of the National Anthem using all the melismatic, neo-country-voice-crackin’, neo-gospel-inflected-pop-ornamentin’ vocal techniques at a singer’s command. Most of the famous persons who are tapped to sing the Anthem at large sporting events will do this, with next to no regard for proper singing technique, proper enunciation (“per-i-lous fight”, not “per-o-lous fight”, please), basic musical sensibilities of the audience, or the welfare of the nearby canine population.

Having grown up a band person, I have a few occasionally band-centric thoughts about the Anthem: first and foremost, I was trained to execute the Anthem as efficiently as artistically possible.  One of my absolute favorite moments from “The Simpsons” occurred when, before a Springfield Istopes baseball game, blues singer (and Lisa Simpson jazz hero) Bleeding Gums Murphy sang (ornamented-ly) the National Anthem. At the beginning of the Anthem, the scoreboard clock read 7:25 PM; at the end, it read 7:48 PM. As usual, that little tiny “Simpsons” moment constituted commentary that was dead-on.

The tune of the National Anthem has a range that is not designed for the average person to sing. In music theory terms, the interval from lowest to highest note is actually a twelfth: basically an octave and a half, where the average untrained voice can comfortably manage just about an octave … and for lots of folks, the “Happy Birthday” octave is a challenge. As many singers find out the hard way, if you don’t start the Anthem low enough, the high notes at the end will wipe you out. (A postscript to this: only certain singers should attempt the optional kick up to an even higher note toward the end, i.e. “o’er the land… of the free—heeeee!”) So yeah – it’s a hard song to sing well.

If I’m listening to someone perform the National Anthem, the last thing I want to be thinking is “please, Lord, let it end.” In any performance, you’d rather not be rooting for the performer to just make it to the end of the song.

And I’m not against idiomatic renditions of the Star-Spangled Banner. Maybe my favorite Anthem rendition that didn’t involve a military-style band or an orchestra or a choir was performed by saxophonist Branford Marsalis and pianist Bruce Hornsby, notably at one of the NBA All-Star games, which was subsequently included in the Ken Burns “Baseball” documentary.  Full of jazzy ornamentations, but not to the greater glory of Mr. Marsalis; full of interesting chords never attempted by, say, a military academy ensemble (here’s an example of that, for comparison), but not to the greater glory of Mr. Hornsby.

So here’s the thing that probably cheeses me off most about the alleged musicians that attempt this vocal performance: they think it’s about them. They forget that this is the national song. It’s a song that, for all its musical challenges, is one that American citizens should have the opportunity to sing together. When an announcer says, “will you please rise and join in the singing of our national anthem,” most times it really just means “will you please rise and listen to someone ‘make this song their own’.” But it’s not their property!

Something that doesn’t happen nearly often enough is an announcer making that statement, and then the 15,000 people in the arena becoming the singing talent. Yeah. I’m advocating karaoke, whole-heartedly. About the only time that happens anymore is when, say, the very young singer freezes up and then the audience bails her out.  Several years ago, the high school chorus that I conducted sang the National Anthem to open the proceedings at a Town Meeting, and we made sure to tell people to sing along, and they did – and afterward I received many compliments, not just about my singing students, but about people’s experience of having been allowed – encouraged! – to sing along.

So, whether or not Christina Aguilera forgot the words on Sunday night (seems like she did), and whether or not lip-synching to a pre-recorded performance is a wise choice (seems like it would have been), there’s a bigger issue here:

Whose Song is It, Anyway?


February 9, 2011 - Posted by | band, celebrity, Famous Persons, football, marching band, music, sports | , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. I didn’t click on all the links in your post, but have you seen this rendition? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jU8zyB3W0pU
    The awesomeness starts to happen around 1:30ish in.

    Comment by Andy | February 9, 2011 | Reply

    • Hadn’t seen that one! Glad she didn’t collapse in a heap… and, well, the less said about the nervous-laugher the better.

      Comment by rhammerton1 | February 10, 2011 | Reply

  2. […] couple of years ago, here, I addressed Christina Aguilera’s Super Bowl Banner-singing issues, which included all of the […]

    Pingback by Do It Live! We’ll Do It Live! « Editorial License | January 22, 2013 | Reply

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