Reposted here by request, with tiny update-edits. Happy Independence Day, friends.
It’s not an easy song, and it isn’t meant to be. It’s a series of open questions, and an anonymous, urgent request to the listener that she find answers to those questions for herself. It’s a historical narrative, a documentary record of a moment of spectacular national fragility. It’s a challenge and a riddle, inscribed in convoluted but penetrating and unforgettable syntax.
Unluckily for us, as anybody who’s ever been to a ballgame can attest, “The Star-Spangled Banner” has suffered through years of torment by operatic bozos who are plainly not thinking about the words they’re singing. I can’t remember the last time I heard a performance of our national anthem that was genuinely communicative; i.e. one where the performer was committed to posing the questions in the song to the audience. It’s been converted into a purely athletic phenomenon, a hurdle that we all must leap simultaneously in order to get to the first pitch, and the singers bombastically hold the high notes and screech out the middle eight, giving no thought whatsoever to the fragility and tenuousness implied by the lyrics, and the very potent and still unanswered questions embedded in the verses.
Like all hit songs, from “Yankee Doodle” to “Born This Way,” “The Star-Spangled Banner” was written at a particular place and time, and that historical context informs (or ought to inform) our understanding of the lyrics. “Born This Way” masks some of its context, and therefore its cultural meaning, behind relatively generic self-affirmation lyrics, so we are perhaps pardoned for taking it at face value. But with “The Star-Spangled Banner” we have no such luxury — the song was written, and is set during, the most desperate hours of the War of 1812; specifically, during the British siege of Baltimore. At the moment of inscription, smart money would certainly have had it that the American experiment was about to come to a premature end in a flash of fury from Liverpool gunboats. That’s not hidden: the presence of risk and threat, the difficulty and vexation inherent in nation formation, is vested in every syllable of the verses. Let’s get more specific about the conditions of production of our national anthem:
At the time of Francis Scott Key’s writing –
- — British soldiers had captured Washington, looted and burned the city, and sent President Madison fleeing into the countryside. The question of national civic authority was very much an open one.
- — the war effort was faring badly on all fronts, and the British navy had made it evident that any coastal city was susceptible to immediate capture, occupation, and destruction. Stop and imagine that for a second, New Yorkers.
- — America was comprised of three distinct and only vaguely interdependent regions (northeast, south, and west), and while reasons for hanging together were no doubt evident, equally articulate reasons for hanging separately were more than ambient. To that end,
- — delegates from New England states, most of whom favored immediate settlement with Lord Castlereagh and the British government, met at Hartford to discuss secession from the Union.
The house of cards was tottering. If not for the defense of Fort McHenry (that’s the precise event depicted in “The Star-Spangled Banner”), the British army would have captured Baltimore and delivered a savage blow to American autonomy, which would have shaken the commonwealth to its foundation. In his documentation of the action in Baltimore Harbor, Key inscribes the indeterminacy of the historical moment in his verse, and, like many literary works forged in the heat of great political and national crisis, the vehicle fashioned there and then proved both durable and farsighted. The first verse is generally rendered like this,
O say can you see/ By the dawn’s early light/ What so proudly we hailed/ At the twilight’s last gleaming
omitting the final question mark (and perhaps there’s good reason to; the question, after all, seeps into the second verse). We trip over the syntax, but it isn’t impenetrable. Look closely, think for a second, and the question he’s asking is readily manifest: we saluted the flag last night, can you see it this morning? Here, as elsewhere, the onus is placed on the listener; he is asked to “say” if he can see the flag. Key doesn’t tell us whether he can see the flag or not, and it’s probably immaterial. The author posits a condition where we proudly saluted the nation before nightfall, and now, in the dawn’s early light, he wants to direct our attention, which may have been wandering, back to the flag and its evident meaning. We continue:
Whose broad stripes and bright stars/ Through the perilous fight/ O’er the ramparts we watched/ Were so gallantly streaming?
This is the most convoluted piece of syntax in the lyric, and it’s the verse most usually mangled by the blunderbusses who sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” before sporting events. The ramparts aren’t streaming, and the stars and stripes aren’t fighting; rather, the lyric places the listener in the foxhole during the bombardment, peering out over barricades of our own construction. Our access to the flag and its synecdochic power is mediated not only by the peril on the other side of the divide, but by the ramparts we’ve thrown up to defend ourselves from threat. We’re straining to see the flag and the gallantry it represents; but what we have to contend with are the actual material conditions of conflict and struggle. Key goes on to imply that it’s that very conflict and struggle that makes realization of the flag, and nationhood, most manifest – but still, even at these instances, the flag isn’t tangible, it’s floating over the battle at some distance:
And the rockets red glare/ The bombs bursting in air/ Gave proof through the night/ That our flag was still there
Proof through the night, that is. But as Key makes clear in the first verse, it isn’t night anymore. It’s morning, and the fact that we could see the flag when illuminated by battle-rockets does not necessarily mean we can see it now. Key knows this; that’s why the final line of the middle eight is written in the past tense, and the rest of the song in the present. Poor singers misinterpret this verse as a reassuring answer to all the troubling open questions, but look, the flag was still there; it’s not clear at all whether it’s there anymore as the first rays of sunlight peek over the ramparts we’ve thrown up. Now that the battle is over, can you see the flag? Can you conceptualize America? Or is it only visible to us when enemy rockets are exploding overhead? Is nationhood dependent on outside threat, or can we come together for the greater good during peacetime to achieve the objectives our founding patriots fought for? At a moment of great immediate crisis, Key has the balls to look to the future, and he asks us:
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave O’er the land of the free And the home of the brave?
Again, the challenge is put to us to “say”; to speak out loud our answer to this elastic, nagging question in a genuine communicative exchange. Key’s articulation of the situation, multifaceted as always, contains a trap for the unrigorous – the same flag that flew over Fort McHenry now flies over the American legion hall on Boulevard East, so in some important and irreducible way, answering “no” doesn’t make sense. But can the American legion hall on Boulevard East, or, in fact, the constellation of towns represented by American legion halls scattered throughout the country, be called, poetically, the land of the free or the home of the brave? Do we see the flag at all — and if so, does the flag we see fly over a different sort of nation? Key wants you to say. Possible answers might include:
- — no, we’re a nation where millions of people, disproportionately black and Hispanic, languish in prison over petty offenses, so calling America “the land of the free” is currently meaningless —
- — yes, here in America, we don’t suffer the kind of restrictions on business practices and personal enterprise that have fettered the growth of the more socialized European countries that have proven less free and less brave —
- — no, our country suffers from a kind of collective cowardice where, though the rockets red glare has long since faded, we keep the ramparts up against anybody suggesting any kind of collective action —
- — yes, we have the strongest economy in the world, we produce the greatest amount of cultural meaning, we export ideas and practices throughout the globe, we’re a model for forces of insurgents working against totalitarian governments in repressive countries, and we aid those brave insurgents where and when we can —
- — no, we see the flag only when we need to, when history tests ask us to, when the DMV asks us to, and generally we disregard our history and our nationhood, and we turn our attention elsewhere during the dawn’s early light —
- — yes, unlike Soviet Russia, we don’t have a caretaker state: we have a community of consequence, where our actions have ramifications and we acquire reward only through risk, and this assures our vibrancy and the ascendancy of only the “brave” —
- — no, the laborer working slave-hours in the factories in the heart of Union City is not free, the black man stopped and detained by police officers doing a “random” search on the Turnpike is not free, the pot smoker who is thrown in prison for lighting up a bone on St. Mark’s Place is not free, the gay man who gets beaten up, or merely ostracized, for kissing his boyfriend in public is not free, the policeman who killed Eric Garner may have gone free, but Garner himself was at the mercy of an increasingly police, and policed, state —
- — play ball.
Notice that it is the last of these answers that is most frequently given, and I can’t truly blame the crowd at Citi Field today for refusing to take the opportunity given by a performance of the national anthem to ask themselves, and more importantly, “say” their own answers to the questions so urgently and eloquently posed by Francis Scott Key. They will be hot, impatient, and not particularly interested in political discourse, they’re going to fidget through the anthem in anticipation of a strong outing by Matt Harvey, and a possible victory over the Marlins. But if “The Star-Spangled Banner” were consistently rendered with any attention to the meaning of the words, I wager that it would prove thought-provoking, and thus I implore anthem singers to approach the lyric with sensitivity, clarity, and some modicum or vestige of patriotism. It is perpetually dispiriting to me that singers who have a genuinely captive audience of tens of thousands, and are charged with the performance of a song with tremendous importance and meaning, regularly fritter away their opportunity to communicate any of that meaning in a disgusting display of vulgar trills and grandstanding nonsense.
One final note, and then you can go and enjoy your hunks of barbecued meat: periodically, there are movements mounted to replace “The Star-Spangled Banner” with a song that is “easier to sing.” These movements are invariably hailed as democratic by misguided pundits who confuse egalitarianism with a universal desire to have everybody be exactly as stupid as they are, and the songs they nominate to replace “The Star-Spangled Banner” reflect their wholesome dimwittedness. I have nothing but respect for Woody Guthrie, but “This Land Is Your Land” is a hopeful, utopian song that would not reflect current American conditions and would thus become little more than a parody, and about the pastoral, acquisitive mess that is “America the Beautiful,” the less said the better (“may god thy gold refine,” indeed). These movements mistake the complicated reach of our current anthem, de-emphasize its elasticity and vulnerability, and shunt its perennial suitedness for its task. In its ambiguity the listener finds its strength, and this American would argue that any anthem that does not emphasize the indeterminacy and fragility of nationhood is not an anthem at all — it’s a damned fight song.