People are still expressing disappointment in Christina Aguilera’s Super Bowl performance of the national anthem, but they might want to thank her as well. For many Americans, the criticism raised over her forgetting the words to the third line was secondary to another concern—that her overstylized take on the “Star-Spangled Banner” failed to honor the song, and that raises a valuable discussion.
Some have remarked that the producers of the Super Bowl got what they should have expected. This is simply how the lady sings. The simple truth is this—some songs are bigger than the performance, no matter who is behind the mike. The “Star-Spangled Banner” is one of these. Whitney Houston understood this. Her Super Bowl performance during the Persian Gulf War was stylish and superb, but her dynamics and phrasing showcased the words and left hearts stirred. She didn’t divide us generationally into the old and young, hip and unhip. She sang to all of us, to one nation, to the future, and her past. She was the instrument, but the song was the star. In short, she met the standard raised by the announcer when he introduced the number saying, “And now, to honor America. . .”
Some think the whole issue is much ado about, well . . . nothing. To them I would ask, “How much do you know about the history of the anthem?”
It’s been said you can’t love what you don’t know. Conversely, the more you know about a topic, the more you care. Most Americans know Francis Scott Key was the author of the poem that became the anthem, but do they realize Key was opposed to the War of 1812? He was a spiritual man, torn between his love of the law and a call to the clergy, but the events during the summer of 1814 steeled his resolve about the cause in which America was engaged.
Historians may now say it was a draw, a waste of lives and treasure, but the following statement from the record of the Thirteenth Congress, which convened November 5, 1814, may provide the most accurate glimpse of America’s assessment of their perilous situation: It may be fairly presumed, that it is the object of the British Government, by striking at the principle sources of our prosperity, to diminish the importance, if not to destroy, the political existence of the United States.
The chaos in Madison’s cabinet left the nation’s capital so poorly defended that Key secreted his family from the city to protect them. He had been on the battlefield at Bladensburg during the British behemoth’s first push for Washington, where he watched the poorly-outfitted, under-trained American forces fold and run. Then he suffered as British rockets set fire to the icons of the infant nation—the grand Capitol building, the President’s House and the administrative wings—along with the armory, the naval yard and much of the city.
Being advised to flee for their lives, the president and his cabinet had evacuated from Washington, and with the president fled and the buildings of government gone, many wondered if America was already lost.
These events prompted Key’s epiphany in the Baltimore harbor on the night of September 13th. He had arrived six days earlier in the company of the Prisoner Exchange Agent, Colonel John Skinner, to petition the British for the release of friend imprisoned by the British, but he quickly became a detainee, subjected to the cruel taunting of the British who shared, in lurid detail, the brutality they planned for Baltimore.
There in the harbor Key and his party awaited the destruction of America’s third largest city. They had loved ones at risk within her borders, people they were powerless to protect, but more than that, they knew the staggering nation’s hope lay in Baltimore’s hands. If Fort McHenry could repel the assault, the nation might rally, but if the fort fell the British could demand anything of the crippled land. And the sign that would tell the tale was a red, white and blue banner.
A conversation ensued through the night of the bombardment. As the rockets screamed across the sky the men discussed their fears. Over and over again, they peered through the darkness of that perilous night, hoping and praying to see a glimpse of that flag by the light of the rockets’ red glare. It struck them that the flag had previously meant little to them or their nation. It had served primarily as a real estate maker of sorts, indicating the ownership of ships, lands, and forts. But not on the night of September 13-14th. At this moment, t flag had become the last icon of America, the fabric embodiment of their republic’s liberty and dreams, and when the dawn’s early light broke across those stars and stripes, Key recorded his tender feelings in the hope it would never be so ungratefully regarded again.
The first stanza expressed Key’s apprehension and anxiety over the battle’s outcome, while his joy at having seen the first glimpse of that star-spangled banner fills the second. The third stanza is an expression of defiance for a foe whose ranks were swelled with hired soldiers who fought for lucre rather than honor or loyalty. Gratitude to God is the theme of the fourth and final stanza. As Key considered the unique blessings America afforded her people, underscoring
everything was Key’s acknowledgement of God’s hand in the establishment and defense of the infant nation.
A popular song of the day, “To Anacreon in Heaven,” ran through his mind as he jotted his thoughts down, providing a framework and meter for the poem he titled “Defence of Fort McHenry.” It was printed as a broadsheet and within an hour copies were on the streets and in the hands of the valiant defenders of Fort McHenry. The Baltimore Patriot newspaper picked it up and printed it along with the tune’s title, and soon it was printed in papers along the seaboard and being sung on stages in far flung cities, carrying the power of Key’s personal witness of a battered America rising from her knees.
That's the message of this anthem--hope, gratitude, perseverance and unity. That's what performers need to remember, and those who gave their lives to guarantee these principles.
The bicentennial of the “Star-Spangled Banner” is only a few years away. Some will continue the effort to remove it as our nation’s anthem. I hope that never happens. Moreover, I hope we never forget the story and the lessons behind the song. No offense to Ms. Aguilera. We all need to be reminded from time to time, but I hope this time the lesson sticks.
L.C. Lewis's novel, "Oh, Say Can You See?" covers the events surrounding the writing of the "Star-Spangled Banner" and is now a finalist for a Whitney Award. It's available on Amazon at http://tinyurl.com/6xxvnq2