Last Sunday, the screech heard around the world came from Fergie as she attempted to sing the National Anthem at the NBA All Star Game. With Fergie’s jaw-dropping rendition came a resurgence of the never-ending question: is the Star Spangled Banner an appropriate national anthem for the United States? Opera singer Jessye Norman argued in a trending video clip that the song is “unsingable” because of its wide vocal range. Despite these arguments, musical, lyrical, and historical clues show that the Star Spangled Banner is an artistically solid representation of our American foundation worthy of both honorable renditions and universal accessibility.
Ignoring the irony of Jessye Norman’s ability to sing three octaves while calling the National Anthem “unsingable,” the song’s wide range is actually more accessible than its opponents acknowledge. Most people have the ability to use the two forms of vocal registration necessary to sing the anthem adequately, and only the most vocally unaware individuals don’t possess an octave-and-a-half vocal range.
The song was never intended to be accessible only to elite singers; the tune was written by John Stafford Smith in 1775 for the song “To Anacreon in Heaven,” which was adopted by an English gentleman’s amateur music club named after the Greek poet and wine aficionado Anacreon. As such, groups of imbibed amateur musicians at bars first sang America’s Anthem melody in low-class establishments. These low-caliber singers pioneered the song more than two hundred years before Fergie destroyed it by poorly opting for notes even higher than written.
This isn’t to say that the Anthem doesn’t have its challenges for the trained singer. Instead, we need to remember that it is not the general public’s responsibility to sing an eighteenth century drinking song melody to an elitist opera singer’s standards. With all due respect to Norman’s prolific opera career, the general public has been proving her wrong for over two hundred years. The people can, and should, sing the National Anthem.
Additionally, the range and melody, combined with Francis Scott Key’s lyrics, elevate a message that is uniquely American from Founding to modern life. From the first shot heard around the world at Lexington in 1775, our identity was based in our persistence against tyranny, even when fighting for independence as a ragtag army of Minutemen against the highly trained British.
This theme is embodied in the lyrics inspired by the War of 1812, emphasizing the permanence of American values of freedom over tyranny. As the lyrics declare “and the rockets’ red glare,/the bombs bursting in air,/gave proof through the night/that our flag was still there,” the melody rises to its first high peak and literally lift our thoughts and voices to the sky. This dramatic link of music and text forces us to remember the stakes that America has faced to be born a new nation out of war and treason and preserve freedom for posterity.
Compare this with the favored replacement anthem, “America the Beautiful” and the problem with this replacement is clear. The song’s range is only a step-and-a-half narrower than the Star Spangled Banner, and boasts nothing but vague imagery of wild, untamed nature and a promise of “crown[ing] thy good/with brotherhood/from sea to shining sea” over a lackluster melody. The song does nothing to distinguish the plains and oceans of America from those of Africa or Canada. One could easily replace “America” with “Genovia,” the fictional kingdom from The Princess Diaries, and its generic spirit would be just as valid. A country as uniquely founded and organized as America doesn’t deserve an anthem that downplays its unique promise to all citizens.
Our National Anthem should be here to stay. Our responsibility to honor it going forward is twofold. One, we must encourage participation in the Star Spangled Banner from everyone who wishes to honor our country by singing it. There is no shame in a self-proclaimed non-singer singing along with the Anthem when appropriate. Secondly, when we choose to lead events with a ceremonial singing of the anthem, we must acknowledge the special skills required to present it honorably, and be judicious in hiring singers over celebrities. If we treat the Anthem with trivial elitism, we will never permit our citizens to embrace every artistic and historical merit the song offers.
There is nothing elitist or inaccessible about our National Anthem. Sing it to the rafters, America.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.