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I blame Whitney Houston.
Having witnessed yet another flagellation of the National Anthem, I can bite my tongue no longer. We have sunk to the level where we find it perfectly acceptable to allow the wanton butchering of the song that is supposed to be the one piece of music that we, as a people, have in common. Francis Scott Key did not intend his masterpiece to be countrified, romanticized, urbanized or salsasized.
I realize that I'm "old school." I further realize that I'm so old school that I still use the term "old school," even though it has been superseded by some other term to describe what I am. Granted, the song is a difficult one to master, given its range of one and a half octaves, That difficulty, however, does not translate into a license to turn the singing of the anthem into an audition for American Idol.
Back to Miss Houston. Her rousing rendition, performed at Super Bowl XXV in 1991, raised goosebumps on a nation-wide scale. Houston, at the time, was one of the premiere performers in our midst. Her voice was strong and pure. The performance, amidst the patriotic fervor engendered by Operation Desert Storm, received wide distribution and air play.
It also opened the door to other interpretive performers. Since then, the stream of Houston interpreters has turned into a deluge. Worse, these performers seem to feel that they can outdo Houston, despite no possessing her obvious natural talents.
Hence, we get a performance that either mispronounces or omits words from the text. We get a sexing up at points in the text, usually starting with "What so proudly" in the second line. This maneuver is usually accomplished by the pussycat purr technique.
If you are reading this column and are scheduled to perform our National Anthem anywhere in the near future, please note. The song was not designed to be sung with any of the following undercurrents: Purring, whining, aching or longing.
Swooping should not be allowed. Singing the song with a pained expression should be verboten.
Having your voice crack like that of a 13 year old boy describing the latest Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue should be summarily disallowed.
You see, the whole ritual of playing the Anthem before a ball game is to give people one of the few opportunities to reflect on their flag and their country; and to do so among fellow sports fans, fellow Americans.
The tradition of playing the national anthem before every baseball game began during World War II. It has been retained because the practice struck a chord with that wartime-generation, offering a chance to reflect on their country. Such an opportunity is certainly salient today.
Certainly, some of that reflection includes thoughts about sacrifice, duty, honor and appreciation.
Most assuredly, the lilts and groans of a Jewel-wannabe can do nothing but distract from that opportunity to ponder.
If a crowd of 50,000 or 5,000 or even 50 are going to show the respect to its flag and nation by standing, removing their hats and placing their hands over their hearts, the least the singer can do is provide a somber, on-key, non-improvised version of the accompanying music.
The song is not about the singer. It is much, much bigger than that.