‘Getting’ the national anthem is like trying to follow the codpiece jokes in Shakespeare, or something

‘Getting’ the national anthem is like trying to follow the codpiece jokes in Shakespeare, or something

[Ed. – Canadian has Anthem Envy.  Bonus factlet: this article is over 3,100 words long.]

1) It is elitist, in both source and form. …

It’s often said that the tune was an “English drinking song,” but that brings up images of tipsy pub sing-alongs. In fact this was a more formal, gentlemen’s supper-club tune, a classy affair where booze and sex come up only via classical mythology, with its call “to entwine / the myrtle of Venus and Bacchus’s vine.” By the time Key used it, it had already been adapted as a rallying song for John Adams, and in return as an attack song forThomas Jefferson. Rather than a group sing, it was more of a call-and-response composed to show off the skills of the group’s best soloist. Its melodic challenges were intentional, without a thought of the discomfort it would bring to future school assemblies and baseball games. …

2) It’s militaristic. Absolutely it is. But consider the scene it sets—not vanquishing an enemy, but withstanding its onslaught and preserving the nation’s identity. The War of 1812 was not long after the Revolutionary War, after all, and what was at stake was the possibility that the British could reverse those gains and bring the American experiment to a premature end.

Although today the “bombs bursting in air” bring to mind later American aggressions, such as Hiroshima or drone strikes, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is nothing like Algeria’s (understandably) anti-French “Quassaman,” which pledges to shed “streams of generous blood” with “the sounds of machine guns as our melody,” or the Italian anthem, which revels in burning out the heart of Austria, or Vietnam’s post-colonial declaration in song that “the path to glory is built by the bodies of our foes.” …

3) The words are incomprehensible. The way Key twisted his sentiments around the Anacreontic air, the phrases are full of half-thoughts interrupted by tangents that complete themselves three lines later. All the brain can make out in most of it is, “O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light, what blah blah blah blah gleaming? Blah blah blah stars, blah blah blah blah. Rockets’ red glare! Bombs bursting in air! Blah blah blah blah our flag was still there.” It’s like trying to follow the codpiece jokes in Shakespeare.

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