I went to a hockey game and, amazingly, a fight broke out. But not the usual donnybrook. It started before the game, during the National Anthem, as a student vocal group, on-ice, launched into a version so free-form that, even in a permissive age — anthem-wise at least — it caught the crowd by surprise.
It started right at the da-wa-wa-wawn’s early light, with catcalls coming from Section 6, where a senior-citizen group was celebrating Hockey Night Out. The seniors’ raspberries shocked the crowd and a counter-wave of boos directed toward Section 6 raised the temperature a bit. The singers continued gamely, but the noise level was rising.
The first missile came from Section 7 — a tray of nachos, launched against the dissenters in Section 6. The tray disintegrated in mid-air before it could reach its target, and tacos, cheese, and jalapenos rained down on the unfortunates of Section 7, who took immediate action against their neighbor. Chaos quickly spread through the arena just as the vocalists, appropriately, had reached the ra-ha-ha-hockets red glare, the bombs bu-wu-wu-wursting in air.
Interestingly, rather than join the brawl, the opposing teams, standing respectfully facing the flag, rushed to give the singers their helmets and used their sticks to fend off what was, by now, a full-scale aerial bombardment of popcorn, seat cushions, hot dogs, baseball hats, and even a Jack Russell terrier that bit a referee and, in a show of canine impartiality, one player from each of the teams.
The group kept on gamely — gave proo-woo-woo-woof through the ni-yi-yight that our flag waaaaas still there….. — and, incredibly, made it to the end — the la-ha-ha-hand of the fre-hee and the ho-wo-wo-wo-wome of the bray-ay-ave. Somehow, their simple tenacity and courage had begun to quiet the rioters and, by the end, the arena was nearly silent, the only sounds an echoing ave-ave-ave and then the CHOSH of the last missile — a large Coke with its cap still on and its straw protruding like a fuse — exploding at center ice.
“You’re joking!” you say. Well, yes, a bit. A group of music students actually did sing the National Anthem. And they did render it in a style that sounded like Jimi Hendrix meets Whitney Houston. The rest, I admit, is the fantasy of one senior-citizen in Section 6, as the youngsters uttered their personal credo. And these were music students, not your garden-variety screechers and growlers.
It’s true that our National Anthem is a mess, even without interpretive intervention. The vocal range is one that only Yma Sumac could have managed. And the stupid words! Five lines of throat-clearing just to ask a simple question — Can you see our flag? Snap Quiz: When did we last see it? (twilight); What time is it now? (dawn); Where has it been? (in a perilous fight, possibly at a local bar, which may account for the stars and stripes).
Maybe this explains why well-meaning Cub Scouts and beauty queens take such painful liberties with the Scar Strangled Banger. It’s like a scruffy empty lot that becomes a magnet for trash, which in turn invites even more trash. It announces, No one is watching, no one cares, and within days it’s a dump.
So why, if it’s already such a piece of claptrap, should I care if people make it even worse? Part of it, I admit, is envy of the Brits, the French, Germans, and Israelis, whose anthems stir the soul.
But the main reason is that it’s what we’ve got, our statement about our country. Poor as it is, it’s a testament to what unites us. It is not a blank slate on which each of us is invited to inscribe our own sentiments. Think of the outrage if we told school kids they could substitute whatever words they wanted to the Pledge of Allegiance.
Perhaps it helps to think of the National Anthem as a protocol — a strict guide to behavior, designed to assure that people in the same situation are treated the same and that no one is unintentionally slighted. When I listen to the National Anthem, I want to feel included in a group that shares a common experience and at least some core beliefs. I don’t want to be an outsider at a “Members Only” rock club.
But what style to adopt? Any choice will exclude others. This is where tradition may help. There is a basic style with unvarying tempo and dynamic that at least avoids idiosyncratic flourishes, says what it has to say and has done with it, and, though it may not excite, at least does not repulse.
And take a pass on vocal interpreters. Give us the instrumental version. That way, everyone can sing along (impossible with the do-wah-diddy versions). I’ll sing my style, you sing yours. The seniors in Section 6 can sing theirs. That way, we get the best of America — a shared, perhaps meaningful, experience and freedom of expression.