Oh, Say Can You Sing

Dear “The Star-Spangled Banner,” why are you so hard to sing? WHY.

Back in July of 2019, Caught in the Act posted a slightly different version of this in-depth story delving into the technical aspects of performing our national anthem. In the wake of last week’s presidential inauguration – which included a dynamite version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” by Lady Gaga – we thought it only appropriate to make a return visit to this post to discuss why this precious symbol of the American spirit is so unforgivingly difficult to sing.

We’re certain you know that “The Star-Spangled Banner,” originally titled “The Defence of Fort M’Henry,” was penned by Francis Scott Key at the precise moment that American independence from Britain seemed won. Washington, DC, had fallen, but if the Americans could defeat the redcoats at Fort McHenry, we would tip the balance of the struggle for freedom in our favor. Mr. Key had a well-known British drinking song, popular at the gentlemen’s clubs, in mind as he wrote the lyrics. We did win; in the morning, our flag was still there. Key took up the pen and memorialized the unlikely victory.

The tune, rousing and particularly suited for boisterous belting there in the middle, lended itself to the feeling of the moment. We’ll mention again that Key’s song was never intended to be our national anthem; it was merely written to capture the history-making, nail-biting drama of an independence that almost wasn’t. “The Star-Spangled Banner” (so coined in November 1814) officially became the national anthem in 1931 mostly because the song paired so well with major sporting events to unify the crowd in glorious feeling. Ergo, now we have the anthem performed prior to most sporting events.

There are some questionable renditions, like Fergie’s lambasted jazz-riff-skeedley-dee version before the NBA All-Star game:

And there are some well-executed, hair-raising deliveries, like the no-frills interpretation by Opera Tampa’s own Jean Carlos Rodriguez, filmed in advance for socially-distanced-for-the- COVID-era 2021 Outback Bowl:

So, let’s talk about what makes “The Star-Spangled Banner” such a tough song to nail—or, not even nail but just get through.

First, this ditty spans an octave and a fifth, so, thirteen notes. Already, the “SSB” has wiped out anyone with normal vocal abilities from being able to sing it and not sound like a minivan backing over a set of bagpipes.

Third, the lyrics are a vine-like construction of 19th century locution that, let’s face it, we’re all friends here, most of us memorized by sound and never thought about too deeply. It’s pretty easy to fumble along lines like “what so proudly we hailed … at the mumble mumble last gleaming” in a gigantic group but seriously try singing the whole thing by yourself at full volume in the shower with complete confidence. It’s tricky, people. For example, did you know that the last two lines don’t state the flag is there—they ask the question “did the flag survive the night? Is it still waving?”—and, in our national anthem, we don’t provide the answer. We just end there. “Oh say—does that star-spangled banner yet wave o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

The song answers the question in the next stanza, which we don’t sing, and most performers phrase the closing couplet as though it is a statement (it does yet wave!) and not a question, since we know it’s rhetorical anyway—the flag was gallantly streaming, as history notes.

The point is, the wording is akin to fancy footwork on top of all the vocal leaping and stepping around a 13-note range. That, friends, is why the “SSB” is so difficult to pull off gracefully.

Here, let Christina Aguilera show you:

And with the Super Bowl returning to Tampa in early February, we’d be remiss if we didn’t include Whitney Houston’s version, which she performed at Super Bowl XXV in Tampa in 1991. Even though Houston lip-synced to a prerecorded version (that featured lush accompaniment by the Florida Orchestra that was recorded at the then Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center), it is widely considered to be the GOAT of anthem performances:

In defense of popular singers everywhere whose “SSB” fails go viral, please remember that they’re often singing with no monitor, no musicians and with a 1.5 second delay—which is an outrageously disorienting echo-effect.

To this end, we have a few tips about how to hone your own execution of our beloved national anthem, the main one being start really low so you can get to the big, high notes without blowing a gasket. We’ve taken the liberty (pun intended) to print the lyrics below in case you’d like to test your own close reading of the text. For us, we always sing in a group—safety in numbers, as they say.

“The Star-Spangled Banner”
O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight
O’er the ramparts we watch’d were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there,
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Check it out: In July of 2018 we brought you the story behind our national anthem

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