Ideally national anthems would be musical embodiments of national stereotypes, and often this is the case. The Soviet national anthem I vaguely recall from my Cold War childhood was lugubrious. “O Canada” is pleasant and inoffensive. “La Marseillaise” is a beautiful piece of music, though the lyrics are a bit prickly. This pattern breaks down with “The Star Spangled Banner” however. It is an awful song. And not awful in some distinctively American way, but merely plodding and hard to sing. The melody is taken from an 18th century tavern song, which makes you think “That’s what they sang when they were drunk back then?” (Shrieking “Sister Christian” at a karaoke screen strikes me as a vast improvement.) Francis Scott Key’s lyrics are needlessly bellicose. They’re about fighting a war with the British, which is geopolitically out of date, and the fight in question was actually the War of 1812, so more accurately the lyrics are about fighting a pointless war with the British to a stalemate. The only redeeming aspect of “The Star Spangled Banner” is its puzzling inventory of antiquated military ordnance. Did they stick the bombs onto the ends of the rockets? Were they supposed to burst in midair? The only good version is Jimi Hendrix’s instrumental at Woodstock which–by virtue of being a loud, anarchic, technology-driven mess whose only message is a gleeful “Fuck you”–actually does capture an essential aspect of the American spirit, but this is a fluke. For the most part the song just sucks.
Why not replace “The Star Spangled Banner” with “America the Beautiful”? The latter is catchy, easy to sing, and relentlessly upbeat. You’ll recall how it starts:
O beautiful for spacious skies
For amber waves of grain
Already America sounds nice. I want to live there. It continues like so:
For purple mountain’s majesty
Above the fruited plain
“Purple mountains”? “Fruited plain”? Now I really want to live in America because apparently you can score some amazing drugs there. The song goes on to praise the United States in a sweet and direct manner. There’s a pleasing crescendo and the God talk is kept to a minimum. It’s all almost too slight, but when Ray Charles turns it into a gospel ballad, he creates something sublime.
I believe that when all is said and done, America’s primary contribution to human civilization will be the blues scale. So you can keep your pre-game caterwauling. For my money, the Ray Charles’ “America the Beautiful” is the real national anthem.