Pregame anthem is meaningful ... but very tough
On this, the day that commemorates our nation’s birth and independence, it seems only appropriate to recognize an American original.
So, just for a moment, let’s consider the musical skills, and the logic, of Nat King Cole.
A mild-mannered gentleman with a soft, smooth voice, Cole cranked out a virtual parade of top-10 hits; hosted his own NBC television show; and earned perhaps the ultimate flattery in our oft-divided nation: invitations to sing at the Republican and Democratic national conventions (he accepted both).
With a microphone, Cole could pretty much do anything.
But even he knew where to draw the line.
“If you do nothing else in your life,” he once said, “don’t ever sing the national anthem at a ballgame.”
Ladies and gentlemen, please rise, remove your hats and ponder the possibilities of “The Star-Spangled Banner” — a deeply meaningful song that kicks off Little League tournaments and Super Bowls, a song that brings grown men and women to tears ... and a song so loaded with tricky notes and tricky words, it has humbled and shamed some of America’s greatest talents.
“It is an extremely difficult song, and you wouldn’t realize it until you have some training,” said Sydney Peltier, an LSU music-education major who sang the anthem twice at sporting events this spring.
“And you know, you can always remember when somebody messes it up.”
In the decades since Cole gave his cautionary advice, dozens of performers wound up wishing they’d listened to him.
His theory was simple: If you sing the national anthem well, you still won’t get any credit; after all, that’s what you’re supposed to do — and by the way, sports fans aren’t really there for the anthem.
If, however, you sing off-key, mess up the words, or sneeze in the middle of “rockets’ red glare,” you’ll live on in blooper reels forever.
Even today, Cole’s theory holds up.
Although thousands of singers have flawlessly performed “The Star-Spangled Banner,” only one rendition — that of the late Whitney Houston, who blew away the world at Super Bowl XXV in 1991 — stands alone in our collective memory.
Over time, most of the others fade away.
On the other hand, botched anthems are something of a guilty pleasure.
The list of failures is long and memorable.
A small sample:
- In 1977, country singer Johnny Paycheck took the microphone before an Atlanta Falcons playoff game and began: “Oh say, can you see, it’s cloudy at night, what so loudly we sang, at the daylight’s last cleaning ...”
- In 1993, track legend Carl Lewis sang the anthem before an NBA game between the Bulls and Nets. Or, more accurately, he tried to sing. His voice cracked at all the high notes, and at one point, said “uh-oh!” Players couldn’t conceal their laughter.
- Then, of course, there is Roseanne Barr. When it came to offending an entire nation with a bad anthem, no one reached the same stratosphere as she did.
In 1990, the San Diego Padres invited the TV star to sing before a game — and to paraphrase local legend Ron Burgundy, they immediately regretted this decision. Barr purposely howled and shouted her way through the song, then followed with a few physical gestures.
The crowd crushed her with boos, and in the days that followed, public backlash stretched from sea to shining sea.
- Two years ago, pop singer Christina Aguilera took the microphone at Super Bowl XLV in Arlington, Texas, apparently determined to belt out an anthem for the ages.
It was memorable, all right. Aguilera got so caught up in the moment, she forgot the words, singing: “What so proudly we watched at the twilight’s last reaming.”
Oops. Where’s that hole to China when you need it?
That night, Dallas native Breanne Strawn, then an LSU music student, watched the Aguilera debacle in astonishment.
“She was off-key and messing up the words,” Strawn recalled. “I’m thinking, ‘What is she doing? I could’ve done better than that.’ ”
Strawn at least had a right to feel that way, as she is something of an anthem veteran. At 16, she first sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” at a Dallas-area horse track.
There, for the first time, Strawn first experienced the pressure of walking to center stage with only her voice — no notes, no orchestra. Also for the first time, she heard a big-arena-style reverberation, which can throw off a singer’s timing.
A few other (very important) details: dead silence, and thousands of eyes, all transfixed on the singer. It’s one thing to sing in the shower, with a rubber duckie and a shampoo bottle for an audience. It’s another thing when you’re in front of a giant crowd, alone.
Naturally, that adds another layer of pressure.
Strawn passed the test, and in college, she went on to sing for almost every LSU athletic team (except football, which, of course, reserves the anthem for the marching band).
The daughter and granddaughter of two military men, Strawn said she’d be “so thrilled” to sing at a Super Bowl or in Tiger Stadium one day.
When the Aguilera thing happened, she couldn’t believe that a well-trained professional would mangle the anthem (and, in the process, her reputation).
Then, last year, Strawn sang at an LSU soccer game. It was the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and the anthem was a bigger production than usual, with a color guard and uniformed men from every branch of the armed forces — not to mention a TV camera in Strawn’s face.
“I was in the middle of (the anthem) — and for a very short moment there, I forgot what words were coming next,” she said. “In that moment, that’s where I had some ... understanding of what happened to Christina Aguilera.”
For the record, Strawn recovered; the words came to her, and no one even sniffed a problem.
In the high-pressure sport of anthem-singing, Strawn remains undefeated.
In fact, just last week, she performed “The Star-Spangled Banner” for a women’s professional football team.
Talk about range.
‘Terrible piece of music’
Why else is the anthem so tough? Many reasons.
First of all, it’s the national anthem. To so many people, it means so much.
“It’s kind of an awesome responsibility,” said Terry Patrick-Harris, professional-in-residence in voice at the LSU School of Music, who helped judge 100-plus anthem candidates for LSU games last year.
“You have to get the anthem right, because everyone knows it. ... The pressure’s not as great if you screw up the alma mater, because nobody really knows the words anyway.”
Second, from a musical standpoint, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is one monster of a song.
Nat King Cole’s old pal, the one and only Frank Sinatra, once called it “a terrible piece of music.” (He did, however, sing at several sporting events.)
As we all remember from history class (right?), “The Star-Spangled Banner” was written in 1814 by a lawyer named Francis Scott Key, who witnessed the British bombing of Fort McHenry in Baltimore. It happened with the flag still flying at night (hence the words, “gave proof through the night that our flag was still there”).
Patricia O’Neill, a professor of voice in the LSU School of Music for 23 years, said the range of “The Star-Spangled Banner” covers an octave and a fifth — no problem for an opera singer, but quite a doozy for the run-of-the-mill guy.
Seldom-used words (“O’er,” “ramparts,” “spangled”) add yet another layer of difficulty.
And as O’Neill noted, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is actually four verses long — but because we always stop at the end of the first verse (“and the home of the brave”), we never find out if the Americans have actually survived the battle.
The answer doesn’t come until the third verse (“and the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave ...”).
Because “The Star-Spangled Banner” is chock-full of tricky words, tricky notes and references to war, O’Neill said she’s in favor of replacing it with “America the Beautiful,” an argument that picks up steam from time to time.
Worth the trouble
Others respectfully disagree with O’Neill — and, for that matter, with the theory laid out by Nat King Cole.
Among them: Peltier, the LSU student who sang the anthem twice this spring (once at a baseball game, once at a softball game).
Her first solo anthem was at Tiger Park, and as Peltier later admitted, she was very nervous.
On the way to home plate, she realized she forgot her notes. Then she didn’t know which way to face: toward the flag in center field, or toward the fans in the grandstand?
“That first time, it was like, ‘Oh my goodness, I don’t know what I’m doing,’ ” Peltier said. “It’s all these little things.”
Someone told her to face the flag.
From there, she cleared her mind and cleared her throat.
And as she sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” with gusto, she stared at that beautiful flag flapping in the breeze, and a wave of emotion crashed over her.
“When you’re actually doing it, it is the most patriotic feeling you can ever have,” Peltier said. “I have never felt more proud to be an American than when I was singing the national anthem at a sporting event.”