Without realizing how it had come about, the combat men in the squadron discovered themselves dominated by the administrators appointed to serve them. They were bullied, harassed and shoved about all day long by one after the other. When they voiced objection, Captain Black replied that people who were loyal would not mind signing all the loyalty oaths they had to. To anyone who questioned the effectiveness of the loyalty oaths, he replied that people who really did owe allegiance to their country would be proud to pledge it as often as he forced them to. And to anyone who questioned the morality, he replied that “The Star Spangled Banner” was the greatest piece of music ever composed.
In an hour I will be at a baseball game, taking off my cap and mumbling along, tunelessly, to the words of a song I hate. I hate its lyrics, I mostly hate its music, and I hate what it stands for. I hate The Star Spangled Banner.
Let’s talk about the music first, since that’s its least objectionable part. Leaving aside its musical roots as an English booze hall song dedicated to some fool who died of cirrhosis, the Star Spangled Banner is an exceedingly tuneless piece of music that only really comes together in its first and last two stanzas (both of which begin with “Oh say…”). Dull, repetitive, lacking in harmony, it wouldn’t be a memorable tune to any American if we didn’t bludgeon it into them as children before they’re fully able to read.
Think about the Star Spangled Banner for a second. Play it in your head. Odds are you’re playing something by a military band or a college marching band. In a country of America’s musical richness, this is what we play when we want to remind ourselves of what makes America great? My God. We’ve delegated the work of John Philip Souza, the only American composer who really ever mastered this late period romantic military-patriotic thing, to a bunch of drunken English louts, the same louts we fought two wars to free ourselves from. If we must have a military marching song, sooner “The Stars and Stripes Forever” (which is actually rather wonderful) than the wretched musical abortion that is The Star Spangled Banner.
Which brings us to the lyrics. Frances Scott Key was many things, a lawyer, a patriot, a religious zealot. What he was not was a poet.
Let’s look at the lyrics with a critical eye:
Oh, say can you see…
Best lyric in the song.
By the dawn’s early light…
What so proudly we hailed…
Again, what? Evidently we hailed a run-on sentence.
At the twilight’s last gleaming…
By this point in the Iliad, Homer has introduced the Muses, the wrath of Achilles, Achilles’ royal birth, that Achilles was the greatest warrior of the Greeks, and the terrible effect of Achilles’ withdrawal on Greek fighting ability and morale. Again, WHAT?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars…
Through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched,
Were so gallantly streaming.
Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah…
And the rocket’s red glare,
The bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night,
That our flag was still there.
I am the Lord thy God. Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
Oh say does that Star Spangled Banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave?
This is the part that trips up America’s greatest singers. Every year we invite them to the Super Bowl, to sing this monstrosity, and every year they fail. If Whitney Fucking Houston couldn’t sing this, why should I?
Which brings us to the theme of the song. The Star Spangled Banner glorifies everything that the Americans of 1814 fled Europe to escape: the worship of national symbols, the glorification of Leviathan. Suetonius tells us that after the disaster at the Teutoborg Forest, in which a horde of freedom-loving Germans crushed the imperialist legions of Rome under Varus, Augustus cried for months, not for the soldiers lost (one would call them “citizens” but the last Roman citizens were Brutus, Cassius, and Cato), but for his flags:
“VARUS, BRING BACK MY EAGLES!”
The founding idea of America is that we have no Emperor, and that no man need kneel, nor take off his hat, before an Eagle. The Star Spangled Banner is a Trojan Horse, in which the secret masters seek to compel the honest, yeoman farmers of America to kneel before an Eagle, just before enjoying the national pastime.
The Star Spangled Banner is the worst possible national anthem for the United States of America.
A national anthem should be memorable. It should be beautiful. It should be easy to sing, and most importantly it’s lyrics should reflect the nation’s virtues and character. The Star Spangled Banner is none of these things.
You know who has a great national anthem? Russia. It’s memorable. It’s easy to sing. It reflects the Russian virtues of obedience, sacrifice, and smothering submission to the collective.
This is the Russian national anthem, sung by Paul Robeson back when Russia was the Soviet Union.
Paul Robeson took a lot of flak for singing that anthem, but I forgive him. If I’d been a black man of Robeson’s gifts, born two years after Plessy v. Ferguson, in a country which forced black men of Robeson’s gifts to kneel before an Eagle just to have the privilege of sitting on the back of a bus, I’d have sung it too.
The Star Spangled Banner should be replaced. It should be replaced by a genuinely American song, which reflects the national virtues of individualism, mistrust of authority, and rebellion. It should be composed by a great American songwriter, in a genuinely American musical form, a Duke Ellington, a Jerry Lieber, a Woody Guthrie.
Yes, Woody Guthrie, a perfect choice. Only, maybe, without all the communism.
– Patrick from Popehat