“The Star-Spangled Banner”

Given all the tempest-in-a-teapot controversy raging right now about our national anthem, I thought I’d do my part as a critic and weigh in on the artistic side of the question. The sad fact is that our current national anthem is an absolutely terrible song, the bastard offspring of a tuneless British drinking song and a hackneyed piece of overwrought patriotic poetry (Kurt Vonnegut described it as “Balderdash punctuated with question marks”). Then there’s the whole issue of the second verse, which no-one ever performs anymore now that the British are perhaps our biggest allies on the international scene (that verse is full of anti-British sentiment, some of it extremely ugly). The bizarre and ugly tune also makes this song almost impossible to perform well…the only good versions of it I know are Jimi Hendrix’s Woodstock performance and Jacques Brel’s scathing parody “Amsterdam” (and I suppose its use in Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, but note that Puccini was smart enough to use it only as a brief leitmotif and not in full). Our national anthem would undoubtedly have been changed years ago to the far superior “America the Beautiful”, except that that song invokes God and is therefore effectively off-limits for that purpose.

Verdict: I wouldn’t listen to this song for a billion dollars if it weren’t routinely forced on me by virtue of being my country’s national anthem.

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