The Best National Anthems: The US of A

As the week nears an end, we come to the final two spots in my (and my Modern Europe class’s) ranking of the world’s best national anthems. If you’re new to the series, you might go back to the beginning and read on to learn the methodology employed and the anthems that have already been judged good but not quite great.

And, for the record, if this process had been entirely in my control (I let my students rank the six finalists), a North American anthem might still have taken the #2 spot, but certainly not this one…

United States of America, “The Star-Spangled Banner”
Longevity: official anthem since 1931
Singability: ranges from Bb3-F5 (C4 = middle C)
Inspiration: 17.6% of Olympic golds won; 2 women’s World Cups won (1999, 2003)
Student Ranking (number ranking it 1st/2nd/3rd/etc.): 2/5/2/5/1/0

Let me vent a bit, then we’ll let my students make the case for their own nation’s anthem.

Most salient, this is a terribly difficult song to sing. Its range (an octave and a half) surpasses all but one other anthem among the nominees, plus it’s in such a high key that only well-trained singers stand any chance whatsoever of hitting the top notes. (My mother impresses me constantly, but singing this song before an Appalachian League baseball game this past summer stands out among her many other achievements!)

And past the melody (which comes from an 18th century drinking song — apparently the most challenging drinking song ever), the lyrics are hard to remember. (As highly gifted, handsomely compensated, world famous singers seem to remind us at least once a year.) And that’s just if we confine ourselves to the first verse. Quick: recite anything from the 2nd verse! And best not to look at the 3rd verse, which has a line that might remind you that Francis Scott Key was a slaveowner who later shared his legal practice with a brother-in-law who is most infamous for writing the majority opinion in this Supreme Court case.

It also strikes me as odd that the United States would choose an anthem commemorating a dubious “victory” in an embarrassing, unpopular, divisive war that saw redcoats burn the White House and Capitol. Conclude the authors of the U.S. Army’s own official history of the War of 1812: “The United States entered the war with confused objectives and divided loyalties and made peace without settling any of the issues that had induced the nation to go to war.”

For a longer indictment of the song along similar lines, see this essay in Slate.

Anyway, the relatively new status of the song as the official national anthem (“Hail, Columbia” and “America” were also commonly used as anthems before 1931) and the exceedingly trying range held it back a bit in the preliminary, objective rankings, but American success in the Olympics (at which, I have to admit, it seems like “The Star-Spangled Banner” produces more genuine emotion among gold-winning athletes than any other anthem) and Women’s FIFA World Cup left it in 1st place heading into the finals.

While none of my students ranked it at the bottom of the list, only two thought it was the best and it actually had more votes for the lower half of the rankings than did the 3rd place finisher.

But in the end, “The Star-Spangled Banner” earned a silver medal, and not just, I think, because of patriotic bias. Here are comments from the two students to vote it best in show:

• The United States National Anthem, while sounding a bit like its forefather (the British), is the most uplifting, motivating in tune and in Lyric form. It has all the elements of historical significance that I like. It is written during the war of 1812, but when I hear its tune I think of so many patriotic things. Our Anthem inspires me to see multiple perspectives such as, patriotism, pride, remembrance of fallen soldiers, sept 11th, my family in the military, our revolution. All of those features embody a lot of what my country means.

• It was created after a moment when the US was under attack and might possibly be defeated. The author saw that the American flag was still flying after a bombardment of a fort during the War of 1812 and he was so moved and encouraged that he created this song. I like this song the best not only because it is the song of my country, but the spirit in which it is written makes it an encouraging, triumphant and uplifting song. The flow of the song is slow but it makes you savor every word and you can imagine yourself looking at a battered but triumphant flag on a fort’s ramparts that lasted through a night of withering bombardment

If the highest aspiration (for a nationalist) of a national anthem is to inspire a sense of common experience, values, and purpose, then “The Star-Spangled Banner” seems to have overcome its musical and lyrical limitations.

It’s also worth noting that the song has inspired some genuinely transcendent interpretations that sound nothing like the most tried-and-true reading of the song (or each other) yet still inspire emotional responses from huge, diverse crowds of Americans. The three that came to mind immediately: Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock, the Whitney Houston Super Bowl rendition, and the legendary performance by Marvin Gaye at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game (embedded above). The fact that all three musicians descend from slaves held by men like the song’s author might help, well, redeem the song a bit.

Tomorrow: #1 revealed.

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