I am glad Quin Hillyer drew our attention to Mark Corallo’s column on Christina Aguilera and The Star Spangled Banner.
However, unlike Quin I did not find Corallo’s words to be Ruthian in their proportion. While Babe Ruth may have hit 714 homeruns he also struck out 1,330 times in his career. In this instance, I think Corallo swung and missed:
So, with all the kindness I can muster, I give this one piece of advice to the next pop star who is asked to sing the national anthem at a sporting event: save the vocal gymnastics and the physical gyrations for your concerts. Just sing this song the way you were taught to sing it in kindergarten – straight up, no styling. Sing it with the constant awareness that there are soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines watching you from bases and outposts all over the world. Don’t make them cringe with your self-centered ego gratification. Sing it as if you are standing before a row of 86-year-old WWII vets wearing their Purple Hearts, Silver Stars and flag pins on their cardigans and you want them to be proud of you for honoring them and the country they love – not because you want them to think you are a superstar musician. They could see that from the costumes, the makeup and the entourages.
But such an argument assumes that all Americans are taught the “Star Spangled Banner” in exactly the same way. As I pointed out here yesterday, Aguilera has been singing our national anthem at sporting events for two decades. Given that Aguilera essentially sings our anthem the same way at 30 as she did at 10 there is every reason to believe this is exactly how she was taught to sing it in kindergarten. Until Aguilera made her unfortunate gaffe at Super Bowl XLV I doubt any WWII veteran went to the trouble of complaining about how she interpreted the song.
Which brings me to this point. Corallo’s argument also implies there is only one way to sing “The Star Spangled Banner” and that any deviation from said way is akin to defaming our men and women in uniform. Yet our veterans aren’t a monolithic bloc. While our soldiers fight for a common cause it doesn’t mean they always march to the same tune. Any true lover of music knows there is no one exact way to interpret a piece of music. Of course, the general public might accept one version of the same song over another. But to suggest that other interpretations of our national anthem are out of bounds is contrary to the nature of making music.
My favorite versions of “The Star Spangled Banner” are the ones done by artists who experimented with the arrangements. First and foremost, there was Jose Feliciano’s performance prior to Game 5 of the 1968 World Series at Tiger Stadium. Feliciano recalled nearly forty years later how the anger at his performance damaged his music career. But it must have made an impression on Marvin Gaye. He had sung the anthem prior to the Game 3 of the ’68 Series and had done it the “proper way.” A year before his untimely death, Gaye sung a memorable version of “The Star Spangled Banner” prior to the 1983 NBA All-Star Game at The Forum in Inglewood, California. While Feliciano received a decidedly mixed reaction in Detroit, the audience in Southern California was clapping along with Gaye.
But perhaps my favorite of all was Smokey Robinson’s rendition prior to Game 5 of the 1986 World Series at Boston’s Fenway Park. Robinson beautifully and seamlessly incorporated “America The Beautiful” into the anthem. The idea that Jose Feliciano, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson or for that matter, Christina Aguilera set out to offend members of the U.S. military with their interpretation of “The Star Spangled Banner” is just plain silly.
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