Let me preface: I am, whether I like it or not, one of over three-hundred million Americans. I have no choice in the matter. Over the past four-hundred or so years, bits and pieces of my ancestry sailed over from miscellaneous European countries to start a new life, avoid famine and war, make a quick buck. The usual. That being said, as an American, I find a lot of the American ethos and aesthetic to be tacky and, generally, awful. At the center of that disdain is The Star-Spangled Banner, a piece of American culture that the people up top blast at every sporting event and ceremony of interest. They played it at my high school graduation, and I was homeschooled, so I’m not sure how Uncle Sam pulled that off. But he did, and I’m just a little bit more indoctrinated because of it.
I’m going to come right out and say it: The Star-Spangled Banner is musically and lyrically boring. Its lyricist, Francis Scott Key, was a slave owner and an anti-abolitionist who defended slave-catchers. But, that’s not what this article is about. It doesn’t matter that choirs sing the words of a terrible man. It was the 1800s. Everyone was terrible back then. All that matters is, “America, yay. I sure do love that flag.” But as poetry, it’s just not very good. It’s a propaganda song and, as someone who firmly believes that no good art comes in praise of the status quo, propagandistic art can never be of quality. Compare, for instance, the rah-rah American spirit of early-2000s stadium country music to the complexity and nuance of Green Day’s “American Idiot.”
But that is beside the point. Let’s talk a little bit about the music. The melody to The Star-Spangled Banner is derived from the song To Anacreon in Heaven by Ralph Tomlinson and John Stafford Smith. The lyrics to this song are considerably better, evoking the classical Greek mythos in honor of the Anacreontic Society’s patron, the Greek poet Anacreon. However, we see with The Star-Spangled Banner a sort of shuffling away from the classical mythos into the new American mythos where, during the Defense of Fort McHenry, a new muse rises up over the fort. And it’s a piece of fabric, a new god in a disappointing American pantheon. The original song, a drinking song, paid homage to mythic Greek figures, and Francis Scott Key takes that melody and replaces gods and goddesses and heroes with Mother America. It’s the breakdown of the classical condition into the patriotic condition, and I don’t care for that at all.
Additionally, while the song was historically very popular, it’s almost two-hundred and fifty years old, and in its antiquity, it is not a banger. Old-timey drinking songs do not translate well to fully-orchestrated monstrosities. The “swoopy” nature of the melody alone makes it very difficult to enjoy the way it’s been ingrained in American culture. Drinking songs have a domestic grandeur to them, wherein a drunken group of chums can scream the lyrics together. That’s simply not the case anymore. It’s not a banger, and hasn’t been for quite some time. It only serves to indoctrinate the American people into this nationalist ethos enforced through bad music and bad poetry.
So, what is to be done? Frankly, nothing. So long as America exists, The Star-Spangled Banner will be a fixture in American life. If I had my way, we would look for better music with which to replace the anthem. Personally, I would commission something from Bruce Springsteen, whose hit song about leaving New Jersey, Born to Run, was named the youth anthem of New Jersey. The American Propaganda Machine is in its death throes, and more and more people are growing disillusioned with the national ethos. A mainstream that counters that status quo of unquestioning patriotism has existed for quite some time. We need a national culture that reflects that disillusionment with the nation. Unfortunately, we’re stuck with “rah-rah, salute the flag” forever.