Thursday, January 24, 2013

Beyoncé and the National Anthem: It's Time to Give "The Star Spangled Banner" Singers a Break

I've had it with "The Star Spangled Banner." Nothing against the U.S. national anthem -- though it's never been one of my favorite songs -- but what is it about the tune that brings out the worst in some people? It seems like every time anybody dares to sing it in commemoration of some momentous occasion, the media (aided and abetted by Twitter, the source of too much of the news that's fit to print these days) concoct a brand-new controversy.

Ever since Whitney Houston turned a live Super Bowl performance of it into a pop hit in 1991 (the same version would make the national anthem a Top 10 single for the first and only time 10 years later, following the 9/11 attacks), "The Star Spangled Banner" has become a song that you touch at your own risk. So Christina Aguilera flubbed the lyrics and didn't give the live performance of her career when she performed the national anthem at the Super Bowl in 2011. Though that was hardly her worst public offense ever, it was treated by some as a high crime on par with treason. Then last year when country singer Luke Bryan used his hand as a teleprompter while singing the national anthem at the Major League Baseball All-Star Game, he was branded "unpatriotic."

Seriously? Because he's human and gets nervous when performing live in front of an audience of millions and probably didn't want to become the next Christina Aguilera for messing up the lines? How many patriotic Americans can sing the entire "Star Spangled Banner" without mangling or forgetting some of the lyrics? Bryan also was criticized for checking his watch during his performance, which is right up there with First Lady Michelle Obama rolling her eyes during a Presidential inauguration luncheon on January 21, among things that frankly, my dears, nobody should give a damn about.

In recent years, Steven Tyler and Jesse McCarthy also have joined the dishonorable list of singers who supposedly didn't give "The Star Spangled Banner" its due, and now it's Beyoncé's turn to join the club. She's getting some of the worst reviews of her career because she may or may not have been singing the national anthem live at President Barack Obama's second inauguration.

I never thought I'd agree with Piers Morgan about anything, but there's always a first time. Who cares whether she was lip syncing or not? Even if she was miming to a pre-recorded track, Beyoncé did sing the song. That was unmistakably her voice, and regardless of when she actually sang what we heard, she handled the challenging material extremely well.

Furthermore, it's not like the Francis Scott Key composition is "Take My Hand, Precious Lord" (a gospel standard that it would be foolish and completely beside the point not to sing live). Despite its political and social status, "The Star Spangled Banner" is simply not that deep. Were it not the national anthem, its lyrical content certainly wouldn't inspire such solemn reverence and devotion. Would it move mountains and hearts the way "Take My Hand, Precious Lord" does without the benefit of national-anthem/treasure status?

Having been publicly performed by everyone from Roseanne Barr (who grabbed her crotch, skipping the reverence and devotion) to Michael Bolton over the years, "The Star Spangled Banner" has become more pop song than political statement. When we listen to famous people singing it, do we even pay attention to the message, or are we too busy critiquing the performances (or wondering if they're live or Memorex) to care anymore?

A Presidential inauguration is not American Idol, though much of the coverage of the latest one treated it like a season finale. It is, however, basically a celebrity spectacle masquerading as a political occasion. Why else would as apolitical an artist as Beyoncé be invited to perform at it in the first place? Mahalia Jackson (who sang "Take My Hand, Precious Lord," flawlessly and indisputably live at Martin Luther King Jr.'s funeral) she is not. As with any Beyoncé singing engagement, her earnest gestures and soulful poses were performance art, not genuine emotion, so does it really matter what, if anything, was coming out of her mouth in that moment?

I'd rather read inauguration "news" about Michelle Obama's new bangs and her trendsetting style than one more word about this latest "Star Spangled" controversy. It's become as tiresome as the song itself.

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