My friend Jonathan posted a link on his Facebook page to a good article about the singing of the national anthem at the Superbowl last Sunday. His comment on the link, melismatica diabolica has delighted me beyond measure, and I hereby adopt it as my new archvillain name. Melismatica Diabolica. But you may call me "Meli" for short.
Not that there will be any "short", because in my evil Meli persona I take fiendish pleasure in what Jerry Wexler called "oversouling". I sing every possible note on every single syllable, and the National Anthem, even though no more than one verse is ever sung, lasts into eternity, or next year's playoffs, whichever is longer… and beyond.
Personally, I don't think Christina Aguilera deserves all of the abuse that has been hurled at her since the game. Folks have even called her treasonous, for heaven's sake! There has been loud railing about two things: Christina dropped a lyric, and she embellished the melody. Let's take a look.
Ms. Aguilera did fumble a lyric in the second A section, repeating "what so proudly" (from the first A) instead of "o'er the ramparts", and carrying on with "at the twilight's last gleaming" instead of "were so gallantly streaming". Carrying on, when there is a problem, is what a pro does. Drop a line, keep going. Mess up a move, keep going. She is not the first singer to dry up on the star-spangled lyric, and not even the first to do it at a huge televised event. Macy Gray, Michael Bolton, and Steven Tyler come easily to mind as members of that club. Nor is she the first singer to mess with the melody and the feel. That box was opened by Jose Feliciano in the late 60s, but the template was set, I think, by Whitney Houston in 1991 (ten years ago, and here we are, still dedicating the anthem to our troops in the Middle East!). Whitney had an orchestra behind her, and wore a jogging outfit. She did a good job (in spite of the outfit). And she took some liberties with the melody, which opened a Pandora's box. It is now expected that every singer will try to inject more passion, more patriotic fervor, and more notes into what is, in my opinion, a not-very-good-song. So yes, Christina flowered and embroidered, but she is not the first, and alas, will not be the last. At least she stayed in the same key all the way, and, with the kind of delay a singer must wrestle at such an event, that is no small accomplishment. With no orchestra, by the way, to help (or to make things worse, depending).
I have sung the anthem many times, most notably at the new Comiskey Park in Chicago, and at the old Chicago Stadium for a couple of Bulls games. It's a V.I.P. invitation to over-sing. The teams are out on the field. The atmosphere is sizzling with electricity. Everyone is ready for the game. But first, you, the singer, step forward to center court or home plate or wherever, to "lead" the singing of our national anthem. Forget leading. Most folks in the stands do not sing along, because they can't. It's a difficult melody, covering a wide range (an octave and a half), so for most folks it is going to be too high, too low, or both.
Back to what actually is sung: "Oh say…?", you as singer/leader ask (because the whole first verse is a question), and all around you folks are, for the most part, standing and holding their right hands over their hearts. They have to do that. It's a law: Part 301 of chapter 3 of Title 36 of United States Code. But – at this writing – no one is being arrested for not doing it. You sing on. By the time you get to somewhere around "so proudly we hailed" you are hearing your voice, which has been blasted through the sound system out into the stadium, and is finally bouncing off the back wall and returning to your ears. That voice is singing, "O say can". What you hear will never catch up to what you are doing; for the whole song, you will be singing contrary to what you are hearing. Actually, it is not unlike singing at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, something I think I do very well precisely because of my stadium experience. Send Anglican choirs to the Superbowl for some larnin', say I.
When you reach "the rockets red glare" you start to hear a rumble from the crowd. It sounds like they are really getting into your singing. That rumble increases as you forge on. Let me tell you, it feels good. Tens of thousands of people are cheering, and you can really hear them because you have paused for a big breath before "the land of the free". They love you! They are wild for you! They want you to sing more! They can't wait till you get to the high note and really show them what you've got!
Not really. They actually want you to finish singing so the game can begin. They are cheering because you have almost finished. They are cheering for the game. It's all about the game. So the temptation to unleash a flurry of brilliant vocal stylings is actually your naughty angel, whispering in your ear. Your good angel is somewhere racketing around the stadium on that 10-second delay. Will conscience kick in, or ego? Flip a coin.
I love my country, and have decided many times to stay here rather than go back to Europe. But I think our national anthem, as a song, is a stinker. The lyric is not about the nation, not even about the colonies, the land or the Constitution. It is about one particular battle in the War of 1812. An alarming number of us have never heard of the War of 1812, much less why it was fought. The original title was Defence of Fort McHenry. How many of us can find Fort McHenry on a map? The entire first verse is a question: "Can you see the flag in the daylight? It was there last night. Can you see it this morning?" The second verse asks the question again: "Is it there?" and goes on to say "yes, I think I can see it." We rarely hear that verse. The third verse says, "Yes, it's there, and the bad guys are toast." But no one ever sings that verse. Musically, "The Star-Spangled Banner" lacks the drive of "La Marseillaise", the gravitas of "God Save the Queen", and the sweetness of "O Canada". It should have been deposed a long time ago, like the tyrant it is, and the gorgeous and singable "America the Beautiful" elected instead.