Why the US national anthem is terrible — and perfect

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Vox's Estelle Caswell and Joss Fong debate "The Star Spangled Banner"
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When Francis Scott Key attached his poem about the War of 1812 to a popular British song called "To Anacreon in Heaven," he kicked off over 200 years of painfully bad singing by patriotic Americans. The Star Spangled Banner became the official national anthem of the United States in 1931, but it had been used by the Army and Navy for decades before that and was popular from the start. One big problem? The melody wasn't exactly written for the masses, but for trained soloists.
Commentators pointed out early on that it was exceedingly difficult for most people to sing, suggesting that "America the Beautiful" might be a better alternative. Critics have noted that the music requires a uniquely wide vocal range, it's full of tricky intervals, and the lyrics are confusing and uninspiring.
But if you look at the national anthem as a sport, where we get to watch performers at the top of their game tackle the gauntlet that is the Star Spangled Banner, you may come to appreciate it. In this video, we debate whether the difficulty of the Star Spangled Banner is a feature or a bug for a national anthem.
Further reading:
Star-Spangled Banner: The Unlikely Story of America's National Anthem https://www.amazon.com/Star-Spangled-Banner-Unlikely-Americas-National/dp/1421415186
Star Spangled Music: http://starspangledmusic.org/
Slate: Proudly Hailed http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/music_box/2014/07/the_star_spangled_banner_four_reasons_it_shouldn_t_be_the_national_anthem.html
Emily Cope: https://medium.com/@emilybcope/music-to-what-extent-does-the-star-spangled-banner-illustrate-how-melody-and-rhythm-influence-the-aff2c78853ed
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Caption: What so failed if you've ever tried to . sing the star-spangled banner' you see . you know it's not easy can't go that. high . the lowest note and the highest note are . an octave and a half apart that's 12 . full notes for comparison god save the . queen' spend seven notes oh canada it's . nine yes exactly a sell this is why we . need a new national anthem what no just . this is exactly why the national anthem . is so great no no no no no the french. anthem that's great . and it's got a range of nine notes nine . notes is enough to make yvonne cry in . casablanca but twelve notes through god . that just feels like failure i know the . words through it but i'm so aware of how . bad i sound i'm like i have to stop . [applause]. [music]. and it's not just the overall range the . whole song feels like it's trying to . lose us starting with the first line . they go oh say can you see i've already . traversed an octave from say that's . music theory expert paula - let's go . let's go to fisa so now it's reversed at . n and we're only in the second measure . and then right here you're also hit with . a chromatic note which means it's not in . the same key that the rest of the notes . are in and that comes right after this . dive an interval is the distance between. two notes if they're right next to each . other they're called steps mo music move . by step meaning a much smaller . percentages yeah but the star-spangled . banner' . is full of skips including fourths . fifths sixths a tenth so you know it's . kind of treacherous that's why music . teachers in the 30s opposed the law that . officially made the star-spangled. banner' our national anthem and a writer . in the 1920s said that no one with a. normal esophagus can sing it without . screaming and in 1906 the washington . post called it perhaps the most unlovely . tune that was ever rung from the . quivering bowels of a horn are you done . yes i'm just saying shouldn't the . national anthem be something we can all. sing exactly ok but how often do you . really need to do that i mean consider . the context where most americans even. hear this song the superbowl nba finals . the world series why shouldn't the . national anthem performance be just as. challenging and anxiety ridden as . whatever sporting event is commencing. you're screwed oh it's great . that's matt farnsworth he's a vocal . coach and teacher in new york city . people think i should just start in a . comfortable range like oh that would be . my comfortable range but really i need . to start down here oh's otherwise i'm . going to be very very high by the time i . get to the end of the song . [music]. [applause]. and the vowels in these lyrics make it . even harder for the left open vowel and . ah and then all the sudden you have to . go to a closed valve which is e e'en or . closed vows free so you've got to figure . out how to sing the eve out with an open . throat but closing on top talented . singers pull this off by mixing their . chest and head voice so chest voice is . like your ethel merman get by right got . to broadway right head voices when we . think of like opera singers if you're . just using your chest voice at the land . of the free it'll sound like this land . ah and then you feel that for it it just . feels like it's not gonna go but if you . incorporate your head voice just a . little it's like hitting a game-winning . fadeaway jump shot. [music]. and notice how jennifer hudson went up . even more on free that's not just an . octave and a half that's two octaves . there's one person who did it so well . that a recording of the song peaked at . 20 on the billboard hot 100 . [applause]. if our anthem was easy to sing jaws we . would not get these moments . okay i'm not saying that i don't have . goosebumps but let the record show that . that microphone was not on wait wait . that was pre-recorded you're killing my . heart right now . are you positive but let's talk about . the lyrics which were written by a . slaveholder and in the third stanza they . celebrate the death of slaves who sided . with the british in the war of 1812 but . the song is about fort mchenry in . baltimore which withstood a 24-hour . attack from the british navy so the big . inspiring idea here is that the country . still exists the ramparts yet i keep . going to the rampart oh whose bright . stripes hair these words are more . descriptive than motivating they're also . phrased really awkwardly so it's no . wonder that they just don't stick in our . brains. [music]. you know i have a really good laugh . about it and you know you get over . things and you know you you get back up . against tina you deserved better no no . no no hold up america loves watching . people publicly fail we should be. grateful that the star-spangled banner . gives us those moments . [music]. yeah i don't know quite what i was . watching but i think that's another . example um i think she really tried to . do something new with it and it just . wasn't as successful she hoped it would . be. yes it's risky for performers to try . something new but when they do it well . it's amazing let's rewind back to 1968 . it's game five of the world series and . jose feliciano a 23 year old blind . puerto rican folk singer is there to do . the anthem no it's immediately apparent . this doesn't sound like the . star-spangled banner it's the height of . the vietnam war and our national anthem . sounds like a peaceful folk tune he . finishes it and then listen closely . [music]. there are boos . one woman was so angry she said she was . gonna write a letter to her senator to . complain but rca released the live. recording as a single it was the first . time the national anthem . made it on the billboard charts 15 years . later marvin gaye walked up to center . court at the 1983 nba all-star game with . a shocking amount of swagger and took a . cue from feliciano by the end the crowd . was clapping with him. [applause]. [music]. we don't need a different national . anthem to feel something we just need . the right singer like maybe these . singers. [music]. see what one of those to be our national . anthem to be honest they're a little . religious for my taste see people have . tried in vain to replace the. star-spangled banner for a really long . time it's not going anywhere anytime . soon so just enjoy it when it's good and . enjoy it when it's bad too . [music]. stars like that last gleaming whose . broad stripes and bright stars through . the perilous fight o the ramparts we . watched were so gallantly streaming . [music]. .

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