by Mellissa Martinez
With the summer Olympics just behind us, our minds are still fresh with unforgettable moments of victory—finish-line dives, emotional collapses, celebratory dances and podium gaffes. No doubt overwhelmed, each victor responded differently when on the platform.
A British bicyclist stuck out his tongue; a Chinese diver accepted a marriage proposal; Katie Ledecky sang; Michael Phelps burst into laughter; and unsuspecting Gabby Douglas forgot to place her hand to her heart (a ‘crime’ that went unnoticed for all other non-heart holding athletes).
When the flag rises and the victor’s anthem starts to play, I am always overcome with emotion, but there is also a curious side to me, which persistently wonders—will the winner attempt to sing? Some are tight-lipped; others toss in a couple of words; and some seem to sheepishly whisper. From what I can tell, however, very few medalists actually sing their entire anthem from start to finish. There may be specific inhibitions for each individual, but when it comes to Americans, I suspect that the primary reason is that they don’t really know the words. To be fair, most of us don’t.
The words to the Star-Spangled Banner have been confounding singers and athletes for years. Celebrities, such as comedian Rosie O’Donnell, and professional singers Christina Aguilera, Michael Bolton, and Steven Tyler have all been shamed for messing up at various sporting events.
One report, aptly titled “Star-Mangled Banner,” notes that there is a certain pleasure, or schadenfreude, that comes with witnessing a Banner blunder. For some reason, we are critical, yet slightly amused when singers replace ‘bright’ for ‘broad’ or ‘blare’ for ‘glare.’ We all know that the notes are hard to hit and the words are impossible to remember so perhaps we take solace in the notion that others find it just as challenging.
Americans aren’t the only ones to get worked up over anthem slip-ups. Last year, English singer Alesha Dixon was admonished for her thoughtless mistake of singing “God save our Queen” instead of “God Save the Queen.” What’s worse was her American-like pronunciation of God, which was met with great scorn. This points to the fact that words (and even accent) matter when it comes to how we choose to represent our national identity.
Our anthem’s unusual syntax and confounding lyrics are usually attributed to the fact that the hymn was originally a poem. Written by Francis Scott Key in the early 1800s, the words were penned during the night as Key witnessed an attack on Baltimore (from the safety of a boat). Like other poets of the 19th century, Key was known for playing with standard word order and this poem was no exception.
Rather than sticking to the accepted syntactical structure of subject (S)+verb (V)+prepositional phrase (PP), Key wrote: Whose broad stripes and bright stars (S), Thru the perilous fight (PP), O’er the ramparts we watched (PP), Were so gallantly streaming (PP). If Key had been writing in non-poetic syntax, he would have used the common word order of: “Whose broad stripes and bright stars were gallantly streaming over the ramparts and through the perilous fight!”
His poem was printed in the local paper and set to the tune of the existing song “Anacreon in Heaven,” a little ditty also used for drinking songs of the time. A century later in 1931, Herbert Hoover, along with congress, decided that the song should have the honor of becoming our national anthem.
Although most of us are familiar with the first verse, there are actually a total of four. That’s right, after the ramparts and rocket’s red glare, there is much more! In fact, the stanza that we sing (or attempt to) is more of a question—not an affirmation. It ponders, “Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave?” The omitted second verse offers the important answer: “That dimly seen through the mists of the deep…Tis the star-spangled banner!”
There are many who suggest that we should have chosen something catchier (or at least easier to understand) like “This Land is Your Land” or “America the Beautiful” to represent our country. Meaning no disrespect, I slightly agree. Although I truly enjoyed watching our Olympians whisper along careful to avoid the unclear sections of song, I would have been very proud indeed to see them belt out the direct and heartfelt message—This land was made for you and me!