Submitted by Susanne Bacon
I hail from a country that, for a long time, had lost any national pride at all due to its horrible history. We have lost permission to sing our national anthem’s first stanza, because during the Third Reich it was seen as a justification to conquer land, not as a call to unite as one nation out of many states. Pretty much every German soccer fan knows the third stanza, which is our anthem’s text now, by heart. It hasn’t been always like this. And we hear the anthem quite rarely, too.
The German national anthem is played only on official occasions involving international context. It is, as far as I know, never heard at an inner-German sports event. Other European nations deal with their anthem in the same way. So different from what we know about the Star-Spangled Banner. Basically, it is to discern the competitors of different nations on whatever occasion. Until the 80s, you often saw the national German soccer team on the lawn, standing bored and slack, chewing gum, spitting, or even talking to each other while the national anthem was played. It all changed with a new coach, Franz Beckenbauer, former soccer top-star, who brought elegance and style to the stadiums again. Not only was he the trendsetter for coaches as to wearing suits and ties on the bench, he made it obligatory for the entire team to sing the national anthem. The stance of the men changed entirely. These days, those young men are singing the anthem with fervor and sometimes with tears in their eyes, and the entire German fan block sings along. By heart. And then … no applause. Because you don’t applaud something as sacred as anthem.
Only recently, after a particularly badly botched US anthem at a basketball game, I happened to listen to a top ten of worst performed US anthems in sports history. And I was appalled. Maybe, I’m having an Andy Rooney moment here, so please forgive me my ranting. There are apologies out there for every singer who didn’t deliver. Some say they were so nervous. Others say maybe it was the flu. Or they couldn’t read the wording they had penned into the sweaty palm of their hands. Seriously?
The Star-Spangled Banner tells a story. It’s descriptive. It’s painting a vivid image. And somebody is not able to remember the wording of an anthem that has been played so often, that they should know it just by hearing? I mean, these are professional singers up there. They are singing in their mother tongue. They remember all the songs they have ever written or performed for their own fame. But not the US anthem?
The top ten of worst renditions of our anthem made me deeply pensive. It almost seems like these days all those stars are out to show off themselves while performing. The beautifully simple, yet challenging melody that almost sounds like the lonely song of a cornet has obviously become the fairy-ground for performers who find they are better than this. As in who can free-style yodel the best – and, here, yodeling is not derogatory, but the terminus technicus for when the voice moves from one register to another without bracing? Who can keep their breath the longest while singing the words “land of the free”? And who can maybe even reach two quarts higher than the original composition at that point? Afterwards, there’s a TV discussion about what went wrong where. And it’s always about the singer, not the anthem. That is, in my humble opinion, the reason for so many professionals failing to get our anthem right. They have managed to turn singing the anthem into an unofficial competition amongst themselves. About themselves. And the audience claps their performance.
A while ago, I was at a military retirement celebration, and the national anthem was performed by a very young, very nervous lady. As a semi-pro, I know that it takes guts to appear before an audience. She was singing the US anthem for her father, and she sang it heart-felt. She knew her words, and she put meaning into them. She was not pitch-perfect, but she did the anthem honor. This young lady was not a star, but simply real and true. I guess, all of the listeners were touched. That is what our anthem should do to us. That was when, for once, I clapped its singer.