Must The National Anthem Be Triumphant?

This following is the Dish thread on American national anthems which ran in the Fall of 2011. It began with web reaction to Zooey Deschanel’s rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” at the 2011 World Series. Unlike when we originally published these posts, in this thread page we’ve embedded the many videos that readers linked us to, so the page may take longer to load for that reason.

Tue Oct 25, 2011 – 3:16pm:

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A solemn Zooey Deschanel sang the national anthem at the World Series on Sunday night. Colbert bait! Natasha Vargas-Cooper and Jay Caspian Kang wonder if it was “the least inspired national anthem ever”:

What did baseball and America do to deserve this? Jesus Christ, what if this sort of pallid spectacle has come to represent our cultural arrested development? I’m not ready for this sexless sort of knock-kneed kiddie bullshit. I thought Fox would be our beachhead in unapologetic American bravado! The national anthem should be sung by someone with swagger, drama, a full-boom voice that stirs even the most numbed-out bro to take off his damn backwards hat.

Jason Heid, who attended the game, was moved by Deschanel’s somber interpretation:

[I] loved the sense of melancholy with which Deschanel infused the familiar song. It felt almost like a funeral dirge … No, Deschanel didn’t deliver a triumphant version of the song, like this fantastic Whitney Houston performance [below]. But what she gave us was unique and perfectly appropriate to lyrics that were, after all, written during an uncertain time of war.

Wed Oct 26, 2011 – 10:21am:

A reader writes:

I am so glad that you picked up the Deschanel/National Anthem question. I just watched the video of it earlier today and was so pleased. The part of the song that we sing the most – the first stanza – is really a series of questions. This form betrays the seriousness and uncertainty present in the hymn, and I am always touched by the searching tone of it, especially the last question: “Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave; O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”. It is a meditation of concern on whether or not we are going to make it, not a triumphant ode to having already done so. We would do well to recover this reflection right now! So, I say Deschanel was dead on in her approach.

Another agrees:

Zooey sang it like she meant it. Even the way she softened the ends of most of the lines gave the audience room to hear themselves singing along, and isn’t that supposed the be the point?

Her job was not to deliver an aria to a silent hall; it was to lead the crowd in singing the song. However dramatic or pleasing Whitney Houston’s rendition might have been, you can’t sing along to it. You can only listen. Which would be great on an album, but is exactly wrong at the start of a ballgame. Singing the national anthem is supposed to be a participatory ritual, not a spectator sport.

Update from a reader:

Along those lines, the Portland Timbers, a team new to Major League Soccer this year, just went ahead and let the fans sing the national anthem at their first home game this year. It was pretty neat.


As for that Whitney Houston rendition, I remember it well – it was Super Bowl XXV, where the Bills lost after Scott Norwood’s last-second Field Goal attempt missed wide right. It was also during Gulf War I, and public patriotism was high at that time, so it really resonated. I was ultimately disappointed to learn that Houston’s rendition was lip-synced. It’s a rather common practice, but it still diminishes it for me for some reason.

Another points out:

Almost immediately after you posted the Zooey Dechanel anthem rendition, it was pulled off YouTube for violating a copyright of MLB Advanced Media. Isn’t there something against laying claim to the national freaking anthem? And to have it done by the purveyors of the national pastime seems doubly egregious.

Wed Oct 26, 2011 – 2:37pm:

Readers add to the canon:

Controversy around the National Anthem and baseball dates back to 1968 and Jose Feliciano’s glorious rendition at the World Series that got him blacklisted from radio [seen below]. And would anyone really consider Marvin Gaye’s now legendary 1983 NBA All-Star Game version as triumphant? Certainly not traditional, but inspiring in its own unique way. This is what artists do: re-imagine us into thinking about the world in a new and different way. What has always made our nation so great are the grounds of freedom that have made these new visions possible.

Another on Gaye’s version:

It’s like a love song.  And there’s a great back story too.

The Jose Feliciano rendition:

Another writes:

Personally, my favorite rendition of the Star Spangled Banner is by Sufjan Stevens, who not only changes the arrangements of the song but also the lyrics. Some might call it overly sentimental and bastardization, but for me it perfectly captures both our country’s last decade of wars and the resiliency of our country.

Another points to Smokey Robinson’s rendition before the 1986 World Series game 5 between Boston and the Mets.

Another writes, “I’ve always liked Laurie Anderson’s commentary on the national anthem, preserved by YouTube here.”

Another offers up some history:

Granted there are times when the Star Spangled Banner is performed and the entire situation is moving and inspiring (such as Whitney Houston’s Super Bowl performance). However, even that performance goes against Congress’ original intent in recognizing the SSB as our national anthem and the code which was adopted for that purpose. The code, which can be found here [pdf], is very detailed as to how the music should be performed in public. It also gives reasons as to why it is to be performed and what steps should be taken to ensure that the performance of the music meets the standard that Congress had in mind. The original actions taken by Congress came at a time when our nation was in need of ways to draw people together and rally them behind the policies and actions of our government, and in a way it was nothing more than propaganda.

Among music educators and musicians there is some debate currently about what should be done with this song (America the Beautiful is preferred). The SSB is very difficult to sing accurately (as evidenced by the many and varied ways “singers” manage to mutilate it almost daily), and so many of our citizens can’t even sing the words correctly! I wonder how many presidential candidates can pull off an acceptable performance. Through the years the meaning and intent of public performances has shifted from being that of pride and reverence to being about ego and flash.


Our knee-jerk patriots, who want not just to enforce patriotism at sporting events but even determine the tone of that patriotism, need a history lesson. Until the First World War, no one would have dreamt of playing the “Star-Spangled Banner” before a baseball game.  Sports, especially professional sports, were thought to be inherently unworthy of the dignity and gravitas assigned to our national anthem.  Only pro-war patriotic zeal – and the desire of baseball owners to be allowed to continue to play during the conflict – led to the now-unquestioned pairing of flag-waving and jock-sniffing that is so central to one strain of “America Fuck Yeah!” patriotism.

And it only got worse with 9/11: the addition of “God Bless America” to all ballparks on Sundays and some (Yankee Stadium) for every game has led to all sorts of nonsense.  I have been berated more than once for not removing my cap during this latter song, and when I inform my moronic interlocutor that you only take your hat off for the National Anthem, you’d be amazed how many don’t know which song is which.  I now joke that the back of your ticket to a baseball game no longer has a rain check: it has a loyalty oath.

Now, back to what Ring Lardner appropriately called “the World’s Serious.”

Thu Oct 27, 2011 – 12:37pm:

This rendition deserves to be set apart from the rest:

We’ve run this video before, but it still resonates. I love it because it really represents America. This experiment has never been easy, or its success foretold, as the questions of the anthem seem to illustrate. We have faltered, nearly given up, torn ourselves apart, segregated and murdered, boomed and busted more than a few times. The greatness of a nation lies not in some false narrative that you see in the Tea Party fantasists, the people who believe the Founding was intended to end slavery, rather than accommodate it, the people who see nothing but greatness and hegemony and pounce on all those who see flaws. It lies in a constant balancing of interests and ideas, and our collective response to failure. In this rendering, a black man rescues a white girl caught by nerves and close to collapse, and rallies her to the end, with the crowd. That’s a powerful symbol of America at its finest.

Thu Oct 27, 2011 – 8:34pm:

Favorite renditions are pouring in from readers. The second-most recommended, behind Marvin Gaye’s:

A reader comments:

Want to talk about a national anthem that is unorthodox? The Star Spangled Banner discussion begins and ends with Jimi Hendrix. It’s frustrated, psychedelic, tragic, yet also inspiring and downright beautiful. The improvisational madness that comes off of Rockets Red Glare and Bombs Bursting In Air perfectly captures not only the words they follow, but absolutely everything that America was undergoing at that time in history.

He came under plenty of criticism for it, too. His response? “I’m an American, so I played it. I thought it was beautiful.”


Two weeks after Whitney Houston sang her version at the 1991 Super Bowl (and two weeks closer to the imminent deployment of ground forces in Desert Storm), Branford Marsalis and Bruce Hornsby played a version at the 1991 NBA All-Star game. Pensive, nuanced, moving in ways that triumphant versions by definition can’t even consider, and perfect for the moment even for a marquee sporting event. It’s always been my favorite.

Another from the Gulf War era:

How about the anthem at the 1991 NHL All-Star game at the old Chicago Stadium? To me, this is the ultimate in patriotic displays. The Chicago Stadium was incredibly loud, you could barely hear yourself think from all the cheering.


I’ve always loved when the three members of the Grateful Dead sang the national anthem in Candlestick Park in 1993.

Another recommends the “pitchy and somber” performance by Billy Joel in 2007:


I’m sure you guys have seen this, but I can’t watch performances of the national anthem without thinking of Maya Rudolph’s impressive rendition.


I couldn’t find a recording, but Rena Marie got into all kinds of hot water here in Denver for her version! [listen below]

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Fortunately, as a young musician growing up in Chicago, I got to see and hear it done the right way. At the opening nights for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Lyric Opera, the conductor leads the audience, the orchestra plays, everyone stands (including the CSO cellos!) and everyone sings. To hear the anthem sung with vigor by 3000+ citizens is a very inspiring thing. As it should be. Here‘s a YouTube of the CSO and their current music director Riccardo Muti starting the 2010 season. It’s hand-held, outdoors and slightly abridged, but speaks for itself. And by the way, a brisk tempo and snappy rhythms are the way the piece was written. Muti gets it right and, when I was younger, so did the CSO’s Hungarian-English music director Sir Georg Solti. Go figure.

Another symphonic submission:

As a composer and huge fan of all of Igor Stravinsky’s music, my favorite story about the Star Spangled Banner has to be Stravinsky’s infamous connection to the tune. As the story goes, in 1943, Stravinsky got it in his head to write an arrangement of the national anthem. His arrangement is fairly conventional and far from the sounds of many of his other works. But Stravinsky’s reputation was as an iconoclastic bad boy. His Petrushka and Rite of Spring were well known by then (the Rite being particularly lodged in the public’s imagination as the piece that caused a riot in Paris upon its premiere.)

The apocryphal story continues that some folks in Boston heard that he planned on having the arrangement performed, so the town council passed a law restricting any rearrangement of the national anthem in whole or in part. The Boston police seemed to have contacted Stravinsky on about January 15, 1944 to warn him that MA could impose a $100 fine for a performance. The incident soon was mythologized into how Stravinsky was supposedly arrested for playing the music.

Here’s a YouTube of the arrangement’s performance. I find it a bit triumphant – except for the middle section (“and the rockets’ red glare…”), which is rather mournful to my ear. I rather like the Stravinsky arrangement, though.

Another adds to my comments on the moving rendition posted earlier today:

It always brightens my day (and brings a tear to my eye) to see this wonderful assist by Mo Cheeks – he truly showed class and empathy. However, I’d also like to point out how the Portland crowd reacted. Often, when there is an on-court mess-up, the crowd groans/mutters/boos. But this crowd quickly responds to her initial faltering by actively cheering her on, and there is no booing or hooting, before Mo comes out. Beyond a man helping a girl, it’s heartening that the fans were literally cheering her on from the beginning. That was truly a great “collective response to failure”, which ultimately became a wonderful success.

Another reader points to another assist of a girl by the crowd, when her mic cuts off:

Mon Oct 31, 2011 – 8:54am:

A reader expands upon a phenomenon broached in a previous post:

It should be noted how the National Anthem is treated before Chicago Blackhawks home hockey games. While the anthem is generally sung in a manner best described as “triumphant,” the fans in the stadium cheer loudly throughout the entire anthem, flying in the face of the idea of “hushed reverence”, sometimes coming close to completely drowning out the singer. It is actually pretty controversial in the sports world (a lame Fox News debate can be found here), but it has remained a tradition in Chicago since the 1980s.

A reader points to the above video:

There was controversy last year during the NFL playoffs when Chicago fans cheered throughout the National Anthem sung by Jim Cornelison. (What surprised me is how many people kept their hat on.)

Some remaining renditions suggested by readers:

Don’t know if you have heard this one yet. In 2004, Bruce Springsteen and other liberal rock stars organized a sprawling, coordinated tour of various swing states to register voters, mobilize the base, and stump for Kerry-Edwards. You know the outcome, but Bruce’s rendition of the anthem endures. He opened every show with this pensive, chiming instrumental before transitioning into an angry, hard-hitting “Born in the U.S.A.” Without singing a note, he cuts through the din of shrill anti-war lefties and smug neoconservative apologists, conveying both the outrage at America’s misadventure in Iraq and the unyielding love for his country.


Please don’t forget this beautiful three-part harmony version of the Star Spangled Banner, sung by those America-hatin’ Dixie Chicks.


Not sure if any readers have pointed to Jack Ingram, but his versions during last year’s NBA Finals and this year’s ALCS were lovely. Nice to see some understatement in Texas, don’t you think?

NBA Finals:



I simply have to weigh in to this great thread with one of the more unique and “out of left field” renditions I’ve heard, not as much due to the rendition itself, which is pretty good and unlikely to offend, but due to the singer: none other than Jerry Stackhouse, a professional NBA basketball player. I grew up in Detroit and went to college during the years he played for the Pistons, so I knew the brother could sing (he often did the Anthem for home games), but it was always fun to watch the amazement/amusement of other players, media and spectators when they announced who the singer was. Stack hardly looks the part of a crooner, but his rendition, which draws heavily from gospel choir stylings and R&B, is I think really beautiful – especially his inspired riff on “gave proof through the night”.


This one always gets to me.  It was Disability Awareness day at Fenway Park and they had a young man sing the Anthem. He got a bit nervous in the middle, so the fans helped him out. I love the crescendo as the fans realize what’s happening and voices are added to voices, and the gracious and proud cheer at the end.

Another notes:

The young girl who flubbed the National Anthem, Natalie Gilbert, got a web redemption eight years later on Tosh.0.

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One more:

The Hendrix quote about his rendition of the Star Spangled Banner being “beautiful” comes from an appearance he did with Dick Cavett. I think Jimi’s words on the matter sum up this entire thread.

Tuesday Nov 1, 2011 8:34pm:

A reader quotes me:

This experiment has never been easy, or its success foretold, as the questions of the anthem seem to illustrate. We have faltered, nearly given up, torn ourselves apart, segregated and murdered, boomed and busted more than a few times.

I think this best represents why my favorite American anthem is actually “America, the Beautiful”. I wish it had been made the offical anthem instead of “The Star-Spangled Banner” because it acknowledges the problems of this country. “America, America, God mend thine every flaw!” is not the kind of writing that encourages mindless jingoism or the idea that our every deed is right because we’re God’s chosen country. Follow that up with “America, America, may God thy gold refine, ’til all success be nobleness and every gain divine!” and you have a song that, while acknowledging the flaws, encourages an endless striving towards perfection, towards the betterment of ourselves and our country.

P.S. Nobody does it better than Ray. I listened to it the night Obama was elected (after a few too many beers) and it brought tears to my eyes.

Thursday Nov 3, 2011 – 7:37am:

A reader writes:

If you’re going to talk about “America the Beautiful”, it’s probably time to bring up “This Land is Your Land”, Woody Guthrie’s 1940s folk-ode to the country. It’s far superior to “The Star Spangled Banner”, in my opinion. But the story behind Woody writing the song is not well known (it was a sarcastic response to Irving Berlin’s (still) terrible “God Bless America”), nor have most people ever read the additional/alternate lyrics to the song. Read this 2004 New Yorker piece for a pretty good rundown on Woody, and also the Wikipedia page for the song.

Right now is also a wonderful time to examine Woody’s work, even his more controversial political views, in relation to the #OWS movement and our present-day troubles:

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me;
Sign was painted, it said private property;
But on the back side it didn’t say nothing;
This land was made for you and me. has a variant:

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

It also has this verse:

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.

In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple;
By the relief office, I’d seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me?

A few more Dish posts where national anthems came up:

Jul 4, 2012 @ 12:37pm

Our Awkwardly Awesome Anthem

Buzzfeed rounds up “atypical renditions of The Star Spangled Banner.” Dish fave:

Reeves Wiedeman reflects:

[W]hen we sing the national anthem, we almost always do it before a sporting event. This is somewhat fitting because successfully performing the anthem is practically an athletic feat. “The Star-Spangled Banner” is not only one of the most difficult songs in its genre but also one of the hardest songs to sing, period—”fiendish” was how Brian Zeger, artistic director for vocal arts at Juilliard, described it to the Los Angeles Times after an especially gruesome attempt by Steven Tyler, of Aerosmith, during the most recent N.F.L. playoffs. There have been efforts to replace it with something more manageable to the lay vocalist, like “America the Beautiful,” or “This Land is Your Land.”

Aug 5, 2012 @ 7:41pm

The Olympics And Nationalism, Ctd

Brian Phillips pits the national anthems against one another:

A series of grueling heats has whittled this number down to 10 finalists, who will compete in four different events:

1. Transcendence of Historical Suffering (Freestyle)
2. 200m Inculcation of Hard-Won Optimism
3. Compulsory Tingliness
4. Volksgeist, the Expression of the Spirit of the People

The above video features the anthem for Montenegro:

How does a nation of 632,000 people — roughly a quarter the size of the borough of Queens — produce an anthem that … I mean, if a mountain range woke up one day, unfolded itself into a race of giant stone men, and marched off to war, each step crushing houses and splintering the Earth’s crust, this is what they would sing while they marched. Are you planning to kill Superman? THIS IS YOUR LAIR MUSIC.